Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta Disco.
How do you thank somebody who saved your life?
After losing his grandfather to cancer in 2001, Brooklyn, N.Y., native Michael Franco, looked for a greater way in which he could help others. Already a contributor to the annual blood drives at the police academy, Franco learned of becoming a bone marrow donor. This decision would lead Franco to save a woman’s life.
In August 1999, 19-year-old Franco, joined the Coast Guard. Years later after several unit transfers, he made the decision to join the Coast Guard Reserves. This opportunity allowed him to pursue his interest in law enforcement by joining the New York Police Department.
Meanwhile, in 2008, 61-year-old Joyce Marcus, president of her own marketing and communications firm in Chicago, had everything going for her. She had a successful business, was in a loving relationship, surrounded herself with incredible friends, traveled the world and was full of life. But then something changed; Marcus began experiencing a significant deterioration in her health.
Following a vacation where she felt extreme fatigue and weakness, Marcus made an appointment with her doctor; nothing could’ve prepared her for the long, arduous journey which lay ahead.
Marcus was diagnosed with myelofibrosis with dysplastic features, a rare blood and bone disorder that replaces marrow with scar tissue. With only a 30 percent chance of survival, she was placed on the “Be the Match” waiting list to receive a stem cell transplant after learning no one in her family was a match.
While her family wasn’t a match, Franco was.
“I just wanted to do it and it felt like the right thing to do,” said Franco about his decision to donate. “Not everybody’s a match. My mom’s been on the donor list for 20 years and never received a phone call. I’ve been on the list since 2006 and received two calls, which I ended up being a match for. It’s rare when you are and just to be able to do it and help somebody out and their family is worth it to me.”
The initial process of collecting the donor’s cells is fairly simple; it entails a swab of the cheek to collect cells, which are then entered into a database of more than 20 million people. Once a match is found, the potential donor is then called upon to undergo the transplant process to donate their bone marrow. The donor has the option whether to follow through with the procedure or not.
“We were a perfect match and I owe my life to him,” said Marcus.
Marcus’s chances for a successful transplant tremendously increased since she and Franco were a perfect match; meaning that 12 of 12 markers – which are proteins found on most cells in the body – from the donor and recipient aligned.
Since the transplant, Marcus was making progress on her road to recovery and enjoying her “new normal life.”
“I’m thankful every day that I wake up, every single day,” Marcus elated. “And that I’m able to have a second experience of being healthy and seeing my husband and my family and just doing normal daily things that people do. I’m very, very grateful to have a second chance at life.”
Both Marcus and Franco knew very little about one another except for the nature of the illness and the gender and age of each other as Be the Match donors and recipients are required to wait a year after the transplant before they can contact each other directly. On the anniversary of the donation, Marcus received a phone call providing a more personal connection to her donor.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” said Marcus describing her initial phone conversation with Franco. “Once I found out that I had a donor and we were a perfect match, I couldn’t wait until the year was up.”
Franco, just as eager to reach out to make the connection to his stem cell recipient, had contacted Marcus while he was deployed overseas to Afghanistan as part of the Coast Guard’s Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment team in support of the shipment of materials in and out of war zones.
“I wanted to see how everything was going and to see how she was feeling,” said Franco.
They’re conversation flowed naturally relieving any nervousness they felt. The two talked about each other and their families, where they were living and what they were doing, as if they were long-lost friends catching up after years of not talking.
Four years after their initial contact, the two met for the first time.
“I wanted to make the weekend with Mike very special,” said Marcus, now 65, of Franco’s visit to West Palm Beach, Fla. “I wanted him to understand how important this was to my folks, my husband, my family and to my friends.”
It could not have been more picture perfect day. The sun was shining as Marcus, along with her husband and their close friends, waited for Franco’s plane to arrive at the terminal. Upon seeing Franco, now 32, walk out of the airport terminal, Marcus hurried over to greet him with a relieved smile and warm hug.
“When he got to the airport and I gave him a hug, it was like ‘wow’, you really are my hero, here you are in the flesh” explained Marcus. “How do you thank somebody who saved your life?”
But meeting Marcus face to face for the first time was all the thanks Franco wanted.