COVID-19 outbreak didn't stop this lifesaver

April 15

It was late December 2019 and Will was packing his belongings and preparing for the trip from NYC to Texas to visit his parents for Christmas.  In addition to the usual excitement around the holidays, Will was particularly looking forward to this Christmas, as it would be his first since getting engaged to his fiancé earlier that year.  So when he saw a call coming in from an unknown number he ignored it and didn’t think twice, after all, his flight was only in a few hours.  Then he saw an email come in that made everything come to a grinding halt. It was DKMS that was trying to contact him: he had been found as a possible match for a blood cancer patient in need of a transplant.

It initially took Will a moment to remember how and when he had first signed up.  Some friends had been holding an event on campus at the University of Texas in Austin back in 2012 and he had registered; both to help his friends out and because it seemed like a good thing to do, even if it was unlikely he’d be called.  Now, nearly 8 years later, Will’s world suddenly snapped back into motion.  He contacted DKMS, told them he was headed home for the holidays and wanted some time to do some research and chat with friends and family.  By the way he returned to NYC Will’s thought process was clear: he might literally be the difference between life and death for someone, how could he not move forward with donation.

Throughout January and February Will and his DKMS Coordinator, Tami, went through additional health screening questions and blood work to ensure he was the best possible match for his recipient.  By the end of February everything had checked out, Will’s donation date was set for late March, and all that was left to do was wait for the day to come and hope that nothing changed.  Meanwhile, the world outside was beginning to experience an unprecedented change that few, if any, could have predicted or prepared for.

At the end of January the U.S. diagnosed its first case of COVID-19, the virus that had taken root in the Wuhan province of China and quickly spread to the rest of the world, sparking a global pandemic. On February 29th, just a few days after Will and Tami had set the date for his donation the first death from COVID-19 was reported in the U.S.  By March 13th Will was watching diagnosis and deaths in NYC increase exponentially day after day and was beginning to be seriously concerned for the health of himself and his family.  He phoned Tami to let her know that he was going to visit his parents to make sure they were okay, but was still planning on flying back to NYC to donate on the scheduled date.  

In the days following his arrival in Texas sports leagues across the country canceled their seasons, NYC suspended schools and began requesting people work from home if possible, and there were now cases in every state in the country.  He felt the weight of responsibility to his recipient, knowing that if he backed out now they would not survive, but he couldn’t help but feel concerned for his own health, as well as his family.  With a week to go before his donation Will called Tami to see if there was anything that could be done.

“It was an extremely difficult decision,” Will explained. “I had this overwhelming sense of duty to the patient, knowing I was their only chance at survival, but at the same time the prospect of returning to what was quickly becoming the epicenter of COVID-19 cases in the US was unnerving.”  Fortunately for Will, Tami listened to Will’s concerns and without a moment's hesitation began reorganizing everything so that Will could donate in Texas, while keeping to the same schedule so that the patient wouldn’t experience any delay in receiving the transplant.  On the same day that Will was supposed to be donating in NYC, now home to the most cases of COVID-19 in the country, he was laying in a bed 2,000 miles away, watching as his stem cells slowly connected and thinking about the stranger who would soon be receiving them.

William is all smiles as he donates blood stem cells.

“Donating in the middle of all that’s going on has really underscored the reality of how connected we all are,” said Will. “My recipient is in the UK and my cells, collected anonymously thousands of miles away, are now going to somehow make it through all the travel bans and restrictions to hopefully give them a second chance at life.  All I know is that patients out there are lucky to have someone like Tami at DKMS on their side, because she moved mountains to make sure this transplant happened.”

The sea change we have collectively experienced with the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the very way we live our day to day lives.  Restrictions are rampant and limitations have curtailed much of what we’ve come to rely on, including the treatment methods patients with blood cancer or blood disorders need to survive.  Despite this drastic shift, DKMS and its donors remain firmly committed to the mission of saving the lives of patients with blood cancer or blood disorders. Regardless of the roadblocks and obstacles that arise from the pandemic, DKMS has one message for patients across the world: you are not alone in your fight.