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Immune disorder survivor meets her lifesaving marrow match during Celebrating Life Seattle

Sep 05, 2023 by Gift of Life Donor Story

Gift of Life’s first Celebrating Life Seattle, our annual event honoring Gift of Life’s heroic donors and courageous recipients, dedicated volunteers and generous supporters, was held on July 30, 2023. This inaugural event was organized by transplant recipients Dena Fantle and Joe Grojean, along with Richard Meyer, Liz Azose and Marv Brashem. The rooftop event drew a large crowd of supporters and volunteers to share in the festivities.

The heartwarming highlight of the evening was when Dena introduced 22-year-old transplant recipient Hayley Anderson Luker, a resident of Tuscaloosa, Ala., to the incredible Gift of Life bone marrow donor who saved her life, Daniel Thomas, 27, of Puyallup, Wash. 

Dena welcomed Hayley, to the stage and shared her story, which began when she was only in the fourth grade. Her brother had battled severe health issues, including leukemia, and when physicians tested him, they discovered DOCK8 immunodeficiency syndrome. This rare inherited condition results in susceptibility to severe infections and can lead to some blood cancers. 

Hayley and her sister were also tested and Hayley was positive for the condition. By the time she was approaching her 20s, a transplant was her best option for a cure. Donors and recipients must share a tissue type match for a marrow donation to be successful. Fortunately, Daniel was a perfect match of 10 out of 10 factors, and his profile was quickly identified in Gift of Life’s registry. 

Daniel joined the registry during a recruitment drive at Washington State University in 2015. It was run by one of his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers, who was also a Gift of Life Campus Ambassador. 

“I just couldn’t say no,” said Daniel. “I have a friend who also matched a patient and I knew if I ever had that chance I would absolutely donate.” 

The moment for the pair to meet finally arrived, and Dena invited Daniel to join them on stage, where he and Hayley hugged warmly.  

“When I learned I was a match I felt a combination of disbelief and excitement,” said Daniel. “I wasn’t sure I would ever be called, then, when I was, I was thrilled at the possibility of making such a great impact. I called my parents right away to share the news – and they are definitely proud of me, especially my mom.” 

Hayley, who was too emotional to speak, asked that her father read her remarks for her, saying, “My transplant was a success and I literally would not be here today if not for the Gift of Life team and all its supporters. To my donor Danny, what you did was the ultimate act of kindness, to do that for someone you don’t even know takes a special person. My life has completely changed, and that’s thanks to you.” 

Notable physicians from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center attended the evening event, including Dr. Rainer Storb, head of the Transplantation Biology Program and one of the pioneers who established allogeneic blood stem cell transplants, Dr. Fred Appelbaum, Executive Vice President, Dr. Laura Connelly-Smith, Medical Director of Apheresis and Cellular Therapy, and Dr. Mary Flowers, Professor Emeritus of the Clinical Research Division.  

Attendees were also treated to the first public screening of the forthcoming documentary, “One in a Million” from Emmy-award-winning filmmaker Jerry Levine. Coming to PBS in 2024, the film recounts the story of the Feinberg family’s four-year grassroots search for a genetic match to save the life of their son, Jay, his survival and founding of Gift of Life Marrow Registry, and the worldwide impact of the organization today. 

Several transplant anniversaries were recognized, including Jay Feinberg 28 years, Joe Grojean 13 years, and Dena Fantle 10-1/2 years.