A second chance at life
How a decision to become a stem cell donor impacted the lives of Ryan Corning ’18 and a complete stranger.
By Leila Jackson ’22
When Ryan Corning ’18 joined the Gift of Life Marrow Registry the summer prior to coming to Elon to study mathematics, he never fully expected that he would one day become a donor. Then during his sophomore year in college, he got a call saying he was a match for someone who had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a rare and rapidly progressing form of blood cancer. “I know a lot of people in the registry now who have never been called and I honestly thought I was just going to be a number in a presentation,” Corning says.
Three years later, he got to meet Julio Rivera, the man who he was able to give a second chance at life.
For patients with blood cancer, a stem cell or bone marrow transplant can potentially save their lives. Many people who join donation registries have a small chance of being a match since finding a donor can be complicated due to factors such as tissue type and ancestry. Corning joined the bone marrow and stem cell donor registry in 2014 after hearing a presentation from Gift of Life at a summer camp where he was a counselor. He was hesitant at first since he was only 18 years old, but he eventually decided to join the registry, which involved a cheek swab and providing some medical history. “I found out how easy it was to join the registry and what sort of impact it could have on someone’s life,” Corning says.
After getting that phone call from Gift of Life in 2016, Corning agreed to be a stem cell donor. He flew out to Hackensack, New Jersey, just after his final exams that spring semester for lab tests and a physical to make sure he was in good health. The donation process typically lasts five to six hours, but since Corning’s recipient needed more stem cells than usual, his case took just under eight hours.
Donors do not meet recipients beforehand as the registry has a policy of anonymity in case the donation is unsuccessful, but they do receive periodic updates about how the recipients are doing. All Corning knew at the time of the donation was that the recipient was a 47-year-old man. Then in January, Corning had the chance to meet Rivera when the two were invited to attend a 5K fundraising event sponsored by Gift of Life in Boca Raton, Florida. The men were emotional when they saw each other face-to-face for the first time. “We just embraced, and I was definitely in tears; he was in tears,” Corning says, adding that they could have been father and son. “I didn’t really know what to expect. It was an unreal feeling because I was going to meet a stranger that I already had such a big connection with.”
Although they could have gone their separate ways after the event, the two spent the day together. Both of their families attended the 5K and got to bond with each other. Even though they had only just met, Rivera and Corning both already felt close to one another. “It feels like my family grew through the donation, like my family just got bigger,” Corning says. “I gained a friend and a brother.”
Corning, who has since volunteered at various Gift of Life events to bring awareness to the need for bone marrow and stem cell donors, keeps in touch with Rivera on a regular basis. “It was just as good, if not better, than I could have expected,” he says.