October 15, 2012
SUNY Cortland student meets girl he gave bone marrow to
A 2-year-old girl with a purple ribbon in her hair clutched closely to her chest a stuffed red dragon Saturday morning, and smiled shyly up at a 6-foot, 230 pound football player who saved her life in January.
Meeting for the first time near the SUNY Cortland football field were the families of bone marrow donor John Stephens and recipient Clara Boyle of Menlo Park, Calif.
The Boyles flew across the country last week to watch John play football Saturday when the Red Dragons took on SUNY Brockport, ultimately winning 45-27.
The room erupted into emotional hello’s, warm hugs and tears, when Clara, carried by her mother, Brooke, entered to meet the Stephens family for the first time before the game Saturday.
John committed to being a bone marrow donor during a recruiting trip to SUNY Cortland in 2010.
The college is part of the “Get in the Game, Save a Life” National Marrow Donor Program, an umbrella organization that offers collegiate athletes a chance to register to donate their marrow to help someone in need.
In the case of Clara and John, it was a perfect match and a life-saving move when John donated his marrow in January 2011.
Now a junior, John said he knew he wanted to donate at the time and after checking with his parents, Paul and Pat, he went forward with the requisite blood work and tests after it was found he was a match for someone.
Brooke held Clara on her lap Saturday, surrounded by news media and members of John’s family.
“I feel like I’m looking at my brother or my son ... you’re a part of me,” Brooke said to John as she sat next to him after the introductions.
Because of donor program rules protecting the anonymity of donors and recipients, both John and Brooke had to agree to release their identities and go through a one-year waiting period. Brooke said she always wanted to know the donor but because of program regulations it took awhile for the paperwork on both sides to finally be released.
In August, John received an email from Brooke that made him “very happy and surprised” and told him the transplant was a success.
“I was waiting over one and 1/2 years and I was excited to finally know who they were,” John said.
When he donated, all he knew was that his marrow would be going to a baby girl. And all Clara’s family knew was that the donor was an 18-year-old man.
But Brooke joked that she thought it was a football player because of the size of the bag containing the marrow.
John had given more than the required amount of bone marrow, in surgery for about an hour while doctors tapped into his spine. He said the next couple of days he had a sore back but added it was a small price to pay for such a large reward.
Brooke, accompanied Saturday by her husband, Alan, and their younger daughter Roselyn, said Clara was diagnosed with Acute Myloid Leukemia at 4 months old. Clara had to undergo two rounds of chemotherapy and then wait for a fungal infection to be treated before she could receive John’s marrow.
The donation process took about three hours for Clara and there was a long recovery period while her parents stayed up late into the night delivering various intravenous medications and 29 oral medications and treating the central intravenous wound site on her chest. In August, doctors finally said Clara’s immune system was fully functioning and Brooke could do little things that other parents take for granted, like take her daughter to the park or the grocery store.
Both Brooke and John said that first e-mail sparked a relationship that will last a lifetime.
“How he gives of himself, I want my daughter to know this guy so she can be like him. It will be fun to watch this relationship grow,” Brooke said.
John said he was very excited to play for Clara’s family.
“There’s a special family watching me out there so I’ve got to work extra hard,” John said.
John said he recommends that anyone who is considering being a donor should “definitely go through with it.” He said it is a short experience that is for a good cause and well worth it.
“My experience over the past two years has been unbelievable,” said John.
And Clara definitely has John’s blood running in her veins, according to her mother.
“Clara’s a football baby. That’s the only thing she’d pay attention to,” said Brooke of Clara’s attentiveness to the television.
SUNY football coach Dan MacNeill lauded John’s altruism and bravery in an emotional speech he gave during the introductions before the news media Saturday morning. He said John exhibited the Red Dragon’s values of trust, commitment and care.
“This is our program’s biggest victory,” MacNeill said. “It puts the whole thing in perspective with the magnitude of a life saving victory.”
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