The man who as a 19-year-old sophomore at Abilene Christian University helped the United States win a gold medal and set a world record in the 4×400 meters joined me on stage in Chapel to kick off ACU’s first Delete Blood Cancer Relay. For 48 hours, we asked students, faculty and staff to add their names to the international bone marrow registry by completing a brief informational form and swabbing the inside of their cheeks to get a cell sample.
To me, the registration drive seemed like an easy way for the campus community to do something meaningful. For Young, it was personal. In September 2011, he went into his doctor’s office hoping for a quick cure to solve a sniffle. He came out with a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and a prognosis that was even worse.
“The doctor told me I had about three months to live,” Young told the Chapel crowd Monday, “unless I had a bone marrow transplant. I’m an optimistic guy, so I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I had no idea what a transplant involved.”
Young recounted the story of hearing his doctor say most people over the age of 70 aren’t approved for transplants. But just as he was no normal 19-year-old when he won Olympic gold, Young was no normal septuagenarian. His sprinter’s body had held up through the years, so the search began. For three months, doctors scoured the international marrow donor database trying to locate someone who shared all 12 human leukocyte antigens with Young.
Of the 22 million registered, they found one perfect match. Just one.
Two weeks after Young was diagnosed with AML, Christine Waag volunteered to get swabbed as part of a donor registration drive in her hometown of Offenburg, Germany. Two days before Christmas of 2011, she was notified she would have the opportunity to play Santa Claus for an anonymous blood cancer patient. After agreeing to undergo the three-hour donation procedure, Waag was flown to Dresden, Germany, to have her marrow extracted and delivered to the U.S. where it was transplanted into Young on Jan. 21, 2012. Transplant protocol prohibits either party from discovering the other’s identity until two years after the operation. By the time Young learned in January 2014 who his benefactor is, Waag’s blood had overtaken his own. His blood type – B positive since birth – has become hers, O.
“I get goose bumps even now when I think about it,” Waag said at the time of the donation. “Each person may have only one genetic twin in the world.”
Waag’s twin said the same thing to the Chapel audience Monday.
“There are 13,000 people right now in the United States waiting for a bone marrow transplant,” Young said. “And every one of them has a match somewhere. You may be for that person what (Christine) was and is for me.”
You could hear a swab drop. I got the cotton ball rolling by taking my cheek sample on stage and passing the baton to Students’ Association president Beau Carter (’17), ACU head football coach Ken Collums, and Wildcat pitcher Thomas Altimont (’16). Hundreds followed them onto the coliseum floor.
Thanks to Young’s inspiration and the perspiration of Dr. Jan Meyer (’87), executive director for ACU’s Center for Christian Service and Leadership; her right-hand man, John Alan Archer (’14); and Amy Roseman, donor recruitment coordinator from Delete Blood Cancer’s Dallas office, more than 500 (and still counting) ACU students and staff got swabbed and joined the international donor registry.
Relay men are accustomed to sharing glory, and Young is eager to do that in this case. In fact, ACU’s registration drive is the culmination of a series of efforts that was hatched on campus last October when Meyer hosted her peers from other Christian universities. She gave Young the floor to introduce himself and share his dream of signing and swabbing college students coast-to-coast. Since then, he has spoken at Lipscomb University, Oklahoma Christian University, Harding University and York College. The drive at Lipscomb in Nashville has already yielded what appears to be a donor match.
Wednesday, as we concluded the campaign in Chapel, we prayed for the same thing to happen with the hundreds of swabs that had been taken during those three days. Even after the amen, students kept coming. I snapped a picture of the swab mob with my phone and posted it on various social media sites. One of the first to “like” the photo was my only Facebook friend from Offenburg, Germany. When I messaged Waag to to tell her about our event and thank her for helping Young, she replied, “My englisch (sic) is not so good. I am so happy that I could help him and someday I’ll hold him in my arms. Love, Christine.”
When I forwarded that message to Young, he said, “Love can be shown in many ways. Hard to top showing it in a gift of life.”
If you would like to register to become a marrow donor, click here.