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Check the Box: Bone Marrow Donor & Recipient Reunite at Panthers Game

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

Gift of Life Meeting

Gift of Life Meeting

Gift of Life and the Florida Panthers welcome a stem cell donor and recipient to the BB&T Center for Hockey Fights Cancer night.

  • 01:50 •

SUNRISE, Fla. - At the time, Zak Blumer had no idea that he was saving a life.

While attending Ohio University, the 23-year-old just happened to stop by an event that his twin brother's fraternity was hosting in conjunction with the Gift of Life Marrow Registry. The organization was on campus looking for potential donors and, since he had some free time, he thought, why not?

"It was just a quick cheek swab, so of course I did it," Blumer said.

A year later, Blumer, who admitted that he'd all but forgotten about joining the donor registry by then, received a call from Gift of Life telling him that a match had been found. Despite the shock of receiving such news out of the blue, he said that he immediately agreed to serve as a donor.

"After one test and another test, weening down donors, they called on me to donate," he said.

Another year passed following his donation before Blumer's phone lit up again with another call from Gift of Life. Not only had his selfless donation helped save someone's life, but they wanted to fly him down to South Florida to meet with the donor recipient in person at a Panthers game.

Looking back at when he first joined the registry, Blumer recalled a conversation he had with one of the volunteers that inevitably helped make this moment possible.

"I was told they could check a box that said I'd be willing to meet him if it happened."

Once again, of course he did.

No one is happier that Blumer checked that box than his donation recipient, Joel Wolpe. Told he had two months to live after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, the 72-year-old resident of Coconut Grove was treated at Sylvester Compressive Cancer in Miami. After no family donor could be identified, he was matched with Blumer through the Gift of Life's registry.

After the transplant, he received several months of specialized care before being cleared.

"I've been a blood marrow transplant doctor for more than 20 years and it never gets old," said Dr. Krishna Komanduri, chief of the division of transplantation and cellular therapy at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. "It's a remarkable thing. It's an incredible act of generosity. "Given the struggles that cancer patients face with these fatal diseases, Joel is such an amazing ambassador for them. To see the profound gratitude how special it is when someone volunteers their time and literally themselves for another person, I get moved to tears every time I see this."

In conjunction with the team's annual "Hockey Fights Cancer Night," Blumer and Wolpe met for the first time before the Panthers hosted the New York Rangers on Nov. 16. As Blumer entered the room and greeted Wolpe with a hug, both shed a few tears before breaking into big smiles.

"I was at Sylvester Cancer Center and someone came in the room and asked if I'd like to meet my donor, and I said, 'Are you kidding me?!'" Wolpe said. "I just assumed I'd get to meet him. Of course I'd like to meet him. How can you not meet the person that saved your life? I'm glad that Zak checked the box and I'm glad I'm here to give him a hug and thank him for what he's done."

Blumer said Wolpe's warm personality erased any nerves he was feeling before the meeting.

"I'm kind of relieved," Blumer said shortly after the emotional meeting. "I was pretty nervous before this. Joel is just such a heartwarming guy. I felt like I knew him right when I saw him. I feel good. It feels good to see all these people here for this. 

"It was pretty wild. The Gift of Life and the people that work with that organization are amazing. They're amazing at explaining to you what it all entails and that it's a no-brainer. It's not hard and it's not time-consuming. They were incredible through this whole process."

An international public bone barrow and stem cell registry created to help those suffering from blood cancer, Gift of Life pioneered the swabbing technique that Blumer said made his decision to donate so easy. In the past it was done by drawing blood, a deterrent for donors.

In addition to the first-time meeting, Gift of Life also had a swabbing station set up in the arena.

"This was an amazing meeting," Wolpe said.

With a new lease on life thanks to the donation he received and the treatment he was given at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Wolpe said he plans to remain in touch with Blumer.

"The odds on these things happening are so remote," Wolpe said. "It makes you realize that you have no control over what happens in life and that sometimes there are things that happen that you can't explain… I'm excited that I met Zak. We're definitely going to maintain our friendship."

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