By: Jen Russon
When Sean Carmona learned he had Acute Myeloid Leukemia in 2018, he was still in college, working two jobs, and uncertain of how his cancer diagnoses would play out. He was willing to do whatever it took to survive.
It turns out what someone else was willing to do ensured Carmona’s survival.
Thanks to a donor named Jonathan Rivera, secured through Be The Match, the 23-year-old recent college graduate and former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student is now cancer-free and forever grateful to him.
Rivera lives in Orlando with his family and was on the donor list for two years before being matched to Carmona in February 2019.
Carmona said the match was exceptionally fortunate, given the fact his Hispanic heritage made this harder to find, slimming his hope of bone marrow and stem cell compatibility to just 46 percent.
Since Carmona had a very aggressive mutation called FLT-3 mutation, which makes the cancer grow back faster and stronger, he was eventually going to need a transplant.
“My gracious and selfless donor provided that. He saved my life,” said Carmona.
He added he has so much ahead of him that Rivera’s gift made possible, like marrying his fiancé, who he lives with in Coral Springs, and eventually returning to a hospitality and hotel management career COVID-19 preempted back in March.
Like all leukemia survivors, Carmona said that receiving what virtually amounts to a brand new immune system from a donor is like starting over as a human being.
“February 26, when I received the transplant, is kind of like my birthday. My donor and I will meet up next year to celebrate my 2nd birthday — have dinner, or maybe go to Disney World,” said Carmona.
The pair met face to face for the first time this fall, and Carmona said they hit it off. The emotional event was captured by Be the Match, which airs during the nonprofit’s Virtual Gala on September 26.
If not for the pandemic, the two men would shake hands on a real stage, but Carmona said he’s confident his call to action for donors like Rivera will come through loud and clear.
He said the process of donating is not as invasive or gruesome as people think — that the procedure, more than anything else, is time-consuming.
Hiss mother Robin said it best on a Facebook post, aiming to get more people interested in registering as potential donors.
“Times have changed, and the process where they need to drill into your hip and extract the bone marrow is no longer. You log on to be the match and order a swab kit. You swab the inside of your mouth and send it in.”
Carmona’s mother said Be the Match handled the next steps by conducting the preliminary testing, which is forwarded to the National Registry. If this testing shows similarities to a patient looking for a transplant, additional blood work is requested, determining whether or not there is a solid match.
Luck was on his side when Carmona and Rivera matched up.
As his donor, Rivera agreed to a series of shots that stimulated his production of stem cells from compatible bone marrow.
But Rivera’s role in saving a life was not done yet; his blood was later drawn in a way that has been likened to the process of donating plasma, and while not exactly pleasant, it did the trick when the time came to send his stem cells to Carmona’s medical team.
If this sounds like the stuff of science fiction, maybe that’s because it doesn’t come cheap.
The average cost of a blood stem cell transplant is about $300,000 for the recipient. The average price for a donor’s procedure is approximately $35,000.
Be The Match covers the entire cost of the transplant for the donor plus flights, hotels, and meals — expenses not covered by insurance. Nonprofits like the one that matched Carmona and Rivera need donations to guarantee more happy stories like this one and hope their gala event draws lots of reservations.
After all, it costs Be the Match $100 each time a new donor joins their list.
To start the process of becoming a potential donor, request a cheek swab kit here.
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- Jen Russon is a freelance writer and English Language Arts teacher. She has published two novels to Amazon Kindle and lives in Coral Springs with her family.
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