The life-changing call:
On September 9th Duke’s phone rang. Expecting one of his four children or his parents, he picked up the call. Instead, he heard the voice of a man he had never met – an oncologist. “I need you to come to the hospital tonight,” the doctor told Duke. He broke the news directly, “you have leukemia.”
Duke was at the hospital earlier that day being tested to determine the cause of his declining condition. He knew that something was wrong and was actually relieved to learn of the diagnosis and begin working out a treatment plan.
Shortly after arriving at the hospital that evening, Duke underwent additional testing. Within a day, his results were back. He was then faced with an even harder fact to comprehend, a fact that would shake his entire world: without immediate treatment, Duke only had a month to a month and a half to live.
That was six years ago, when Duke was 44. Thanks to a complete stranger, an ocean away, Duke is alive to share his story of faith, good fortune and, above all – survival.
The fight to survive:
Shortly after Duke was diagnosed, he started chemotherapy. Amazingly, after a year of extremely aggressive treatment, Duke was pronounced cancer free; but he wasn’t in the clear just yet. His doctors told him they were certain the cancer would come back, and when it did, the disease would be stronger and more aggressive.
Unfortunately less than nine months later, the doctors’ prognosis was right. Duke’s cancer was back, and this time, he needed more than chemotherapy to survive. “My diagnosis was aggressive, so they knew they were going to have to do something to try and save me. The doctors told me, you aren’t going to survive without a marrow transplant,” said Duke.
The search for a match began by testing Duke’s siblings. When they tested negative, his doctors turned to the Be The Match Registry. That’s when Duke won what he would later call his “lottery ticket,” – a matched marrow donor. After intensive chemotherapy to prepare his body, Duke received the transplant that saved his life.
The meeting of a lifetime:
Immediately after his transplant, Duke knew he wanted to meet the young man that gave him his life back. “In my mind, I must have painted my donor a million different ways. I had thousands of questions for him,” said Duke.
In America, if both parties agree and the transplant center allows, a donor and recipient can meet one another, but must wait one year after transplant. Because Duke’s donor was from Germany, the waiting requirement was longer. After two years, Duke was finally able to reach out to the man who, at 27, saved his life by donating Peripheral Blood Stem Cells (one of two methods of marrow donation). Duke offered his donor the opportunity to fly to Colorado so they could meet.
In October, Duke’s donor, Marco, did just that. Before he arrived, Duke had so many things he wanted to tell Marco, but most of all he wanted to say thank you. “There is a cascade effect when someone is diagnosed. It cascades to family to friends, to a huge amount of people, not just one. I wanted to make sure Marco knew that what he did affected a lot of people. I wanted my entire family to have the opportunity to give him a big hug and say thank you”
Marco and Duke spent the next 10 days together, getting to know each other and developing a deep bond. “It was definitely a connection we will maintain,” said Duke.
The blessings along the way:
When Duke looks back on his experience, he believes God had a plan for him and this faith is what helped him through the entire ordeal. “If everything was perfect, and bad things only happened to bad people, life wouldn’t be as brilliant as it is,” he said. “Bad things happen to good people too, there is no way around it, this allows us to realize just how fortunate we are.”
In addition to recognizing how fortunate he was, Duke learned something else about himself – he is stronger than he ever could have imagined. “You may think you know how you would respond to a life-changing event, but I would argue that you will never really know how strong you are until you are in the foxhole, fighting for your life,” he said.
Marco did what he promised, donated marrow to save a life. “At the end of the day, that’s what you want. You want everyone to have the chance like I did,” said Duke.