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From 4% chance of survival to 100% healthy: Joe’s story of hope

Feb 11, 2011 by Gift of Life News

Joe was at the end of his rope. After being diagnosed with a very advanced case of leukemia, his doctors told him he had only a 4% chance of survival. But Joe is a fighter. He battled several severe bouts of pneumonia before Gift of Life found him a bone marrow donor. It saved his life and today Joe is 100% healthy.

Joe’s blood stem cell donor was Donna and, a year after his transplant, the two met for the first time in a moving family get-together. The emotional roller coaster and near misses Joe experienced make this story that much more poignant.

Joe didn’t even know he was sick when he went to his doctor two and a half years ago to get his blood checked for high cholesterol. He started chemo just two days after he received the bad news. “Within a week, I was in intensive care,” Joe says. “I nearly died then and there.”

But Joe’s wife Paula was not ready to give up. After he caught pneumonia again – this time just two weeks before his transplant was scheduled to take place – the prognosis was dire. “I saw the doctors and nurses faces,” Paula says, “and I said ‘I’m not ready to plan a funeral.’” Joe fought back the illness and the transplant went ahead.

Perhaps his remarkable recovery had something to do with his donor Donna’s belief in him, long before they had ever met. She nicknamed the stem cells she donated “Rocky,” after the iconic boxer. “There are a lot of good fighting cells in there,” she says. It didn’t hurt that Donna’s father, brother and nephew were all named Rocky too!

Aside from their tissue type – which was a perfect match – there are a few differences between the two: Joe is a big guy at more than 200 pounds. Donna is only 4 foot 10 inches. “I didn’t think I could possibly make enough stem cells for him!” she says. “I was on the machine that removes the stem cells from the blood for several hours.”

As so often happens in our stories at Gift of Life, the match almost didn’t happen. Donna “just happened” to stop in, at her sister-in-law’s urging, to a JCC where a bone marrow drive was taking place. “I never really thought about it after that until, five years later, I got the call,” she explains. Joe, on the other hand, had a previous donor from another registry all lined up who backed out at the last minute, leaving Joe in immediate peril. Luckily Gift of Life was there to help. 

From the get go, as soon as they met, Joe and Donna felt like family to each other. Yet, Joe says, he was almost afraid to go to their emotional first meeting. “What do you say to someone who saved your life?” Joe asks. “Without her I wouldn’t be here. But we really hit it off. And it’s a friendship that will continue. Absolutely.”

Donna was nervous too. “He was a complete stranger. But we wound up talking with Joe and his wife Paula for hours. He’s such a sweet guy. I like to call him a ‘regular Joe,’” she jokes. “There was an instant connection. It was amazing.”

Even more inspiring is what Joe and Donna did immediately after meeting each other: they drove up to the boarding school where Donna’s son was organizing a blood drive and spoke about their experience before her son’s whole class – together, like old friends.

I know it’s a cliché to say, but it’s true: Gift of Life’s donors truly work miracles. I feel privileged to know them, and blessed to have the opportunity to be a part of Gift of Life’s work each and every day. I will conclude my post with a message from Donna:

Note from the donor:

To everyone in my Gift of Life family,

“I had to share this picture with you and tell you guys about my wonderful evening. Joe (my recipient) and his family visited and meet my family last night. We had a wonderful evening and we felt like we’ve known them forever. He was given the gift of life but I was given a gift of this wonderful family in our lives. Thanks for all you do every day to make all of this possible.”  - Donna