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High school debate coach donates blood stem cells to save 9-year-old girl battling leukemia

Sep 13, 2021 by Gift of Life Donor Story

Cody lives in a small town in Montana of only 1,800 people, but one of those people had received a bone marrow transplant to cure blood cancer and Cody knew her. In 2016, when he saw an ad online for Gift of Life Marrow Registry, Cody ordered a swab kit from the website and completed it at home, sitting on his couch.  

“I decided to join the registry because it was a simple process and the possibility of saving a life left no question,” said Cody. By simply swabbing the inside of his cheeks with four swabs and returning them to Gift of Life, his tissue type was tested and added to the registry. Anyone 18 to 35 years old and in good health can join.  

Five years later, Cody received a phone call from Gift of Life while driving home from a neighboring town with his best friend, Kate. He was a match for a nine-year-old child battling an acute form of leukemia. 

“I was a little confused initially, I had forgotten about signing up,” he said. “My next reaction was, Wow, I am potentially saving a life! It was wonderful to share that moment with Kate in real time. She said I HAD to do it! My niece is the same age as my recipient, and that cemented my decision to donate.” 

Cody is not only a hair stylist, he also volunteers at the high school as the Speech and Debate Coach, the Theatre Director, and Educational Field Trip Advisor. Both his fellow stylists and the staff and students at the high school were ready to do their part to make sure he could take the time off to donate. 

“My family knew the gravity of the situation, and covered the things my co-workers couldn’t,” Cody said. “I love that every person genuinely took interest in the process.” 

In the weeks leading up to his collection day, Cody was the advisor for a field trip of high school students visiting Washington, D.C. Not only was he dealing with COVID restrictions, he was also extremely careful to stay healthy as he prepared to donate stem cells at the Georgetown University Hospital, also in Washington. He even took his Neupogen injections, given to help mobilize blood stem cells out of the bone marrow and into the blood stream for collection, while on the field trip.

“That week of go, go, go with the students, plus the injections, really took it out of me,” said Cody. “During donation I did a lot of sleeping. The process was fascinating! I had heard all about it during the phone calls with my Donor Services Coordinator, but to see everything in action and the stem cells going into the bag was really fun.” 

Cody was also impressed with the service from Gift of Life’s staff. 

“They were all so wonderful,” he said. “Every person I came in contact with was amazing.”

Back home in Montana, Cody was the center of attention for a while, with a feature article in the local newspaper. 

“The donation has become a fun point of conversation,” he said. “I have definitely achieved something of a ‘celebrity’ status here in little Choteau.” 

But he also embraces the meaningful side of donating stem cells to his young recipient. 

“This has special meaning for me, I don’t think there is anyone who hasn’t been affected by cancer, whether them or a family member for a community member,” said Cody. “To have a part in literally giving the gift of life to someone is really beyond words. If I were able to meet my recipient tomorrow, I would book a flight immediately.”

Cody, 34, is a graduate of the Salon Professional Academy and in addition to coaching at the high school, he is highly involved in volunteer work in the community. He is married to his husband Tom, and in his free time enjoys attending concerts and theatrical productions around the state, as well as traveling.