It’s instinct to give when the recipient is your family, Councilmember Jeff Ira said. But to give blindly and selflessly is a whole different story.
“It’s such an amazing experience to help out,” said Anthony “Tony” Tavarez, 29. “It’s like you have a twin out there with the same genetic matching.”
Tavarez is a public safety officer at Columbia University in New York, and like most donors, casually added his name to the National Marrow Donor registry back in 2003. A quick Q-tip swab on the inside of his cheek, some paperwork, and he continue on with his security work.
But in June 2010, Tavarez received a phone call from the national program asking if he would be willing to take some blood tests to determine eligibility for donating to a young patient.
The young patient turned out to be 4-year-old Matthew La Croix, 3,000 miles away. Matthew’s mom, Deanna, is the executive assistant to Redwood City City Manager Bob Bell.
Matthew was receiving blood transfusions every three weeks to keep up his red and white blood cell count. But the constant transfusions caused a surplus of iron, which leads to the deterioration of the body’s organs. To lead a healthy life, the ideal transplant would have to occur before a patient turned five.
“I would go to work every day not knowing if I could save my son’s life,” said La Croix.
But across the country in New York, Tavarez realized he had the chance to change a life, and family, forever.
“It was very shocking and it was a heavy responsibility, but I didn’t think twice.” he said. “There was something greater going on and I was a part of it.”
Mentally, Tavarez continued on as normal for the next month before the July 22 surgery date. But he said he was more cautious than ever before, warily crossing the street and looking both ways.
“My own life was tied to someone else’s,” Tavarez said. “So if something happened to me, he wouldn’t get the bone marrow and might not live.”
On the day of the surgery, Tavarez recalled more mundane paperwork, then being whisked off to the operating room.
He said they knocked him out with anesthesia, turned him on his stomach, then inserted a large needle in the back of his hip bone to extract the liquid.
“Then I had six little needles in my back,” Tavarez said of the aftermath of the surgery needed to fill six tubes of marrow.
The recovery time took longer than anticipated, with complications ensuing. And because of his physically demanding job, Tavarez had to stay home from work for longer than anticipated.
“I was tired often and I had to change the bandages often because there was oozing,” he said.
But even after this selfless act, Tavarez wasn’t able to see his “twin” for a year, according to the program’s guidelines.
Until this past Monday.
Reuniting with His Hero
Matthew is now 5 years old and lives a perfectly normal life attending Tapestry Kiddie School on Middlefield Road.
But city staff wanted the chance for Matthew to meet the man who saved his life and recognize Tavarez for the incredible generosity toward a complete stranger.
The city, fire department and police department all worked together on a fundraising effort to fly Tavarez out to Redwood City for the special proclamation at Monday night’s city council meeting. Mayor Alicia Aguirre presented Tavarez with a symbolic key to the city.
“You are welcome to our city any time,” Aguirre said.
La Croix thanked her co-workers at the city of Redwood City for supporting her through a painful year when all she could do was pray for a donor match.
“We always talk about passion during these proclamations,” Councilmember Ira said. “Well, there is nothing more passionate than saving a human being’s life.”
Registering Your Name
Though this is just one specific case to Redwood City, thousands of transplants occur each year. Yet, only half of the 10,000 patients who need a marrow transplant receive one, according to the National Marrow Donor Program.
“As many people should sign up for the registry as possible,” Tavarez said.
The database only contains about a million people, Tavarez said. But when looking for that perfect match with all the specific requirements, this still isn’t enough to sometimes find that perfect donor.
“I’d like to think if I ever needed help, someone would donate,” Tavarez said. “I hope people will consider signing up.”
To sign up for the “Be the Match” program or for more information, visit marrow.org.