Most donor recipients do not usually get the chance to meet the strangers who saved their lives on national television, but that is just what Joseph Yannantuono did on Good Morning America, as he was introduced to Justin Jenkins, the man who donated his stem cells to save Yannantuono just 21 months earlier.
Yannantuono, who is a Continuing Education instructor at the College of Staten Island, was diagnosed in 2011 with Stage IV Lymphoma. In February of 2012, after several rounds of chemotherapy, his doctors told him that he was cancer free and he believed his life would begin to be normal again. Unfortunately, just six months later, the doctors broke the news that not only was the cancer back but he would need a stem cell transplant, and without that, it could be fatal. “I broke down,” said the outspoken Yannantuono. “I was scared, confused, you name it. I thought about my wife and my son and I said to myself, I can’t die on them.”
Years earlier, halfway across the country in Texas, Jenkins volunteered to get swabbed during a bone marrow drive at his work place for Be The Match, just for the free snacks, never thinking that donation would eventually be the beginning of saving a strangers life. Be The Match, operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, manages the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world. Through Be The Match, Yannantuono was paired with Jenkins in a rare ten out of ten genetic match. Jenkins was then put through many tests and given many shots containing flu-like contagions to help boost his white blood cell count. Once high enough, they were then able to extract his marrow and take the stem cells from there. The cells were flown in a matter of hours to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where they were transplanted into Yannantuono on December 7, 2012. On Christmas Eve 2012, after being in the hospital for 24 days, much less than the 100 days that most stem cell transplant patients stay in the hospital, he was able to go home and surprise his family. Although he felt weak and could barely walk up steps, he was excited to be able to spend Christmas with the people he loved the most.
Over the course of time, Yannantuono began to grow stronger and stronger, celebrating each little victory as it happened. Little things, like going out in public without wearing a mask and latex gloves to keep away the germs or beginning to go back to work, were reasons to celebrate. What he still really wanted was to be able to thank the mystery person who saved his life and to celebrate that. In these types of transplant situations, the donor and recipient must remain anonymous for at least one year after the transplant and then, if both parties are willing, information about each other can be shared. Yannantuono knew that he wanted to meet this person but didn’t know if the other person wanted contact. In spring 2014, not too long after celebrating his one-year “birthday” Yannantuono received a message on the phone, “Hi, my name is Justin and I think that you were the recipient of my cells.” In the next few months, they connected through social media and phone calls, never knowing if they would get to meet in person.
The story does not end there. Just days before Jenkins received Yannantuono’s contact information, Jenkin’s mother was killed in a tragic car accident. He was grief stricken, his mother was his rock, she had raised him on her own. He says that getting Yannantuono’s contact information and connecting with him helped to saved him as they begin to act as each other’s support system.
After months and months of speaking to each other, the Jenkins family as well as Yannantuono ‘s wife, Christine, contacted Be The Match to see if they offered some type of donor/recipient meeting program. Soon after, Jenkins got the call that Be The Match would generously fund his family’s trip to NYC so that they could participate in the Be The Match Walk/Run with Yannantuonos and his family and friends as well as the added bonus of getting to meet each other for the first time on Good Morning America. On September 19th, on national television, they met for the first time. It’s something that no one will ever forget.
Since receiving a clean bill of health, Yannantuono has returned to teaching math for CSI’s Continuing Education program. Working closely with Be The Match and Chris Cruz-Culari, HEO Officer for Continuing Education and Professional Development, they hope to be able to start a bone marrow drive on the CSI campus in the hope of finding matches for all of the other people waiting for donors.
For more information about Be The Match, please visit bethematch.org.