When Peter Favilla found out he might be a match to donate bone marrow, he didn’t even remember he was on the donor registry.
“I got a phone call in 2015” said Favilla, a Hudson, Wis., resident who attends People’s Congregational Church in Bayport. “It was from the Indiana Blood Center. I didn’t even know what that was.”
The person on the phone reminded him that about 20 years earlier, he’d signed up to be on the national bone marrow donor registry, and asked if he’d be willing to come in for a blood sample, to confirm whether he was a match for a 47-year-old woman.
A few weeks later, he got a call saying he was a match.
Favilla said he was “kind of nervous” when he went home to talk to his wife and children about the possibility that he would donate marrow.
His 14-year-old daughter looked at him and said, “Dad, why do you look so nervous? It’s not like it’s a choice — of course you’re going to do it.”
“So the decision was made right there,” Favilla said.
Michelle Hayes, who lives near Houston, is grateful. Diagnosed with leukemia, she received Favilla’s marrow Aug. 12, 2015, and it saved her life. She calls it her “second birthday.”
“I will be two years old in August,” she said.
Hayes is meeting Favilla for the first time this week, as part of a family trip that will bring her to Wisconsin and Minnesota. She also plans to attend church with him to meet the congregation that has been praying for her and receiving regular updates about her condition the past two years.
“I told the church what I was going to do beforehand,” Favilla said. “Everybody wanted to know what the story was.”
Born in Michigan, Hayes was raised near Detroit until age 12, when she moved with her mother to the Houston area. She lost her mom to cancer at age 15, and was on her own at 16.
She married at 22 and just celebrated her 27 wedding anniversary in June. She has a son and a daughter, both grown.
Although Hayes dropped out of high school, she earned her GED when her son began high school, because she wanted to set an example. She went on to finish a four-and-a-half-year college program in the allotted time, while working part time with kids at home. When she finished her degree, she went into teaching.
“I’m a high school dropout that’s now a school teacher,” she said. “I teach kindergarten.”
She was teaching pre-kindergarten in March 2015 when she had a small heart attack as she was getting ready to dismiss the class. Initially doctors told her it wasn’t a heart attack, but she returned to the doctor two days later when she still wasn’t feeling well. That’s when the doctor told her she had Leukemia.
That was March 7, 2015.
It was the second time she’d had cancer; she’d beaten cervical cancer at age 31 through surgery without chemotherapy. But she didn’t know much about leukemia.
“I just broke down,” she said. “My husband broke down. I didn’t know anything about leukemia at the time. I just thought you died. I thought, ‘I’m dying.’”
Hayes began chemotherapy, but went on to discover that a genetic disorder she had meant the treatment wouldn’t be successful long term.
“No matter how many chemotherapies I got, the leukemia was coming back,” she said.
So her local hospital transfered her to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one of the top cancer treatment centers in the country, where she’d receive a bone marrow transplant.
Despite having five siblings and two children, Hayes didn’t have a relative who was a match to be a donor, so doctors checked the national donor registry.
There were four unrelated donors on the registry who might be matches for Hayes, but she was told most people have 20 or 30 potential matches.
“You have a very slim margin that anyone’s going to match with you,” doctors told Hayes.
Then she found out a 45-year-old male matched her. It was Favilla, though she wasn’t allowed to know who it was at the time.
For his part, Favilla said, the process was painless. He went to Mayo Clinic in Rochester early Aug. 11, 2015, to have 1.6 liters of marrow harvested from his pelvis. He was put under anesthesia and woke up a few hours later. Aprt from being a bit sore, he said it was easy.
“The Mayo people just treated me like I was a rock star,” Favilla said.
The same day, his marrow began its trip to Houston, where Hayes would receive it the next day.
With the transplant, Hayes didn’t simply receive some of Favilla’s blood — she now has the same blood and DNA. In fact, she’s now a different blood type than she used to be, and she said a DNA test could be traced to either one of them.
“You’re not a criminal are you?” Hayes jokingly asked Favilla when they were able to speak on the phone for first time, in November 2016.
“He said, ‘No, you’re not either, are you?’” Hayes said.
After the transplant, Hayes recovered well, and went back to work teaching a year later, in August, 2016. Now she’s pill-free and back to a healthier weight, after losing 120 pounds during her illness.
“I am feeling awesome,” Hayes said. “I go swimming now. I’m working out. I do anything I want. I play with the kids at school — I keep up with 22 kids at school.”
Hayes said she was looking forward to meeting Favilla.
“Peter takes very little acknowledgment of what he did,” she said. “He thinks he played a really small part of it, and it was all me. Without Peter, there’d be no me. So to me, Peter’s my angel. Anybody that donates, they can save a life, and be somebody’s angel.”
In conjunction with Hayes’ visit to the St. Croix Valley, People’s Congregational Church in Bayport is hosting a Be The Match donor registration drive Sunday, July 9, noon to 2 p.m. The church is at 309 Third St. N.
Be The Match, a nonprofit, is seeking potential donors, primarily of ages 18-44, to be added to the list of potential donors. Young men ages 18-35 are especially needed now. Diversity is also needed, because ethnicity often affects whether someone is a match.
Having your name added to the list doesn’t require drawing blood — it just takes a mouth swab, though a blood sample would be needed if you were identified as a potential match. It’s also possible to sign up for the registry by completing an online registration and receiving a swab kit in the mail.
For more information go to bit.Ly/2tiOEgy or call Julie Slipka of Be The Match at 612-202-2480.
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]