Randy Pence, 51, received a bone marrow transplant at Duke Medical Center in 2011 that saved his life.
Of the millions of potential donors in the Be the Match database, an international nonprofit, only two were a possible match out of the nearly 9 million donors. And only Steve Lasiter, 48, was a perfect match. The two had never met.
The two lived on opposite sides of the country – Lasiter in California and Pence in West Virginia.
But four years later, the two finally met Saturday afternoon for the first time, during a presentation at the annual Duke Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Program Reunion in Durham.
Each year, the program arranges one pair to meet for the first time. Pence and Lasiter were the two chosen.
With Pence waiting on stage, in front of about 350 attendees, the presenter called Lasiter up to the podium.
Pence looked around in the crowd, and when he finally saw a man walking toward the stage, Pence raised his fists in the air and shook them, as if to celebrate.
When Lasiter got on stage, the two gave each other a tight hug. Pence grabbed Lasiter’s arm and raised it in the air.
“It was amazing. Somebody that you don’t even know saves your life,” Pence said, trying to find the words. “What’s it worth to see your family another day? It’s just great.”
Pence said he always wondered what his donor looked like. He found out in June that he’d finally be able to meet him. Officials at Duke called and asked him what he thought about meeting his donor.
“I said it would be an honor to meet him,” Pence said. “What he had to go through, it’s not a painless procedure. It’s a selfless act of kindness, and it means the world to me.”
Lasiter was equally amazed. The two had been able to communicate through email but their meet-up was a long time coming.
“This here is just a whole (different) experience,” Lasiter said. “Listening to him tell his story and knowing how I was a part of that and having the ability to let him see more of his family for a longer period of time, it really is fantastic.”
The road was a long one for Pence. About six years ago, he started to feel tired and sluggish. A husband and father of three, he said he had never been sick before.
“After work I just couldn’t get up because I’d be so tired,” Pence said.
Pence went to the doctor and was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow cancer in which the white blood cells harden and blood cells cannot be produced.
He would need a bone marrow transplant, because he had no chance for survival otherwise. None of his family members was a match, so he joined a donor bank. It took a year to find matches.
Lasiter, a firefighter and former Marine Corps officer, had previously registered to be a donor. When doctors called him and told him he was a match and asked whether he would be willing to participate in the transplant, he agreed.
Duke’s bone marrow transplant program was started 30 years ago, and 5,000 patients have received transplants. The program takes care of patients with cancer, said Nelson Chao the program’s director. The standard treatments have failed and the patients are at risk of dying.
“Almost each one of those is a real miracle, because a lot of those patients shouldn’t be alive if you looked at their disease at the time,” Chao said. “So the fact that they’re back and looking healthy is really exciting.”
Chao has been the program’s director for 20 years. He said it’s come far since it’s inception. Patients had to be in the hospital for months in isolation. But now at Duke there’s a study of working in a patient’s home.
Pence is an example of the program’s success, and there’s reason for optimism. Four years after his surgery, he hasn’t had any major problems.
Kerry Minor, his nurse practitioner, says patients are more likely to relapse in their first year after surgery. She said she is pleased with Pence’s progress.
“The further he gets out, the risk for relapsing gets smaller and smaller,” Minor said. “So now that he’s four years out, it would be rare to see him relapse.”
After the reunion, with cameras around, he and Lasiter talked. Pence introduced him to friends and his uncle.
And he thanked him. Lasiter had saved his life.