Be the Match: Coast Guardsman gives stranger second chance at life

1st Coast Guard District News
NEW YORK, N.Y. – 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 relatively effortless decision would lead Franco to save a woman’s life.

“It seemed better than giving blood,” said Franco, a longtime blood donor. “For me, to be able to do something for someone else, to make sure they didn’t have to go through what my family went through, that’s a great thing.”

In August 1999, 19-year-old Franco, joined the Coast Guard and was stationed in Boston where he chose the machinery technician rate. Years later and 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 Dept.

Meanwhile, in Chicago in 2008, 61-year-old Joyce Marcus, president of her own marketing and communications firm, 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 along with the inability to recover quickly from ailments.

Following a vacation to the Caribbean where she experienced extreme fatigue and weakness, Marcus made an appointment with her doctor. But nothing could’ve prepared her for the long arduous journey, which lay ahead.

Marcus was sent to the emergency room where she received fate of her illness. She was diagnosed with myelofibrosis with dysplastic features, a rare blood and bone disorder that replaces marrow with scar tissue. It was ravaging through Marcus’s bone marrow and blood. With only a 30 percent chance of survival, she was immediately placed on the waiting list “Be the Match” to receive a stem cell transplant after learning that no one in her family was a match.

“Every year, more than 12,000 patients in the U.S. are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma for which a marrow transplant from an unrelated donor may be their best or only hope of a cure,” according to Be The Match, a non-profit organization which matches patients with donors. “About 70 percent of patients who need a transplant do not have a suitable donor in their family.”

“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. Its 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 when Be The Match compared cell samples from the two.

Since the transplant, Marcus was making progress on her road to recovery and enjoying her “new normal life”. Her energy is slowly making a comeback and she is able to do just about anything she wants, to a point. She enjoys brisk walks and some of the normal activities she was able to do before. Unfortunately, as a result of the transplant and hospital stay, she was unable to travel to some of her clients out of state, forcing her into semi-retirement.

“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. Up until this point there was no contact allowed between the two because Be the Match donors and recipients are required to wait a year after the transplant before they can contact each other directly.

Marcus received a note from Franco, which didn’t arrive until three months after he sent it to her.

Be the match

Joyce Marcus, a Florida resident, gets emotional after talking about receiving donated bone marrow from Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Franco, a reservist stationed at Coast Guard Station New York, March 22. “It’s an amazing feeling,” said Marcus while explaining the feeling of getting a second chance at life. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Mark Barney.)

“Just remember that if you get the sudden urge to start new things that you may not have ever thought of like skydiving, shooting guns at a range, martial arts, driving very fast, going on trips to adventurous places … well, then you know that the transplant is going great, and you and me have now become that much closer as my bone marrow is now yours.”

On the anniversary of the donation, Marcus received a phone call that helped give her 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 along with the U.S. Army 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 spent the next half hour talking 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.

In the months following their initial conversation, Franco, now back from his overseas deployment, was enjoying time raising his two young daughters, playing rugby and protecting New York in his occupation with NYPD and Coast Guard Station New York.

Since their initial conversation, Marcus and Franco have kept in close contact exchanging emails, “facebooking” and calling periodically. Each time they tried to schedule their first encounter something prevented them from meeting.

Now four years after their initial contact, the two were able to coordinate their hectic schedules to meet for the first time in visit to the Sunshine State.

“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 to meet. The sun was shining creating a big warm welcome feeling. Brimming with excitement and anticipation, Marcus along with her husband and their close friends waited for Franco’s plane to arrive at the terminal.

“There he is!” shouted Marcus.

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.

Photos related to this story may be seen at the Coast Guard. News Flickr page.

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