A Generous Gift: My Transplant Journey

By Darren Johnson, Medical Science Liaison

It all started with a blood draw. I was 17 and in the middle of my senior year of high school and my doctor was checking some routine labs. I thought nothing of it as I was a healthy young man with plans to soon graduate and head off to college to pursue my goal of becoming an ESPN SportCenter anchor. However, the universe had different plans for me and they were put into motion with a phone call and a message: “your blood counts are surprisingly low, you need to come back in for a repeat.” – I thought it must have been a lab error, but there was no error. Those abnormalities were mine and the consequences were real. My worry-free bubble of senior year was punctured by words like “leukemia,” “chemotherapy,” and “bone marrow biopsy.”

I was eventually diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a type of bone marrow cancer. Unfortunately, MDS has few options for treatment, one of which, a stem cell transplant, offers the best chance for a cure. Stem cell transplantation is a medical procedure that generally consists of high dose chemotherapy followed by the infusion of stem cells. The idea is to replace patients’ diseased stem cells with healthy ones in order to rebuild their immune system. I needed an allogeneic stem cell transplant, which means the stem cells are procured from a healthy donor, either related or unrelated. Though I have two brothers, neither of them proved to be a match for me. That meant I would need to find an unrelated donor from the National Marrow Donor Registry, managed by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP).

At that point it was a waiting game. In the meantime, I was preparing for the endeavor I was about to embark upon – cue Rocky 4 training montage! My luck finally changed when a compatible donor was identified – a 25-year-old man – a perfect match. I went on to undergo my transplant and despite many hardships, complications, and untoward effects, I survived and gained a new outlook on life.

Darren’s stem cell transplant

My transplant journey inspired me to pursue a career path into medicine instead of journalism. I worked as a physician’s assistant at a cancer hospital for 12 years, helping stem cell transplant patients through their own journey, and I now work with the team at Vor Bio as a Medical Science Liaison, speaking to physicians about our novel approach for next-generation stem cell transplants in acute myeloid leukemia.

None of this would be possible, however, without the incredibly generous gift I was given by a complete stranger. Individuals who decide to donate marrow and stem cells are real heroes. Without their donations, thousands of people each year would miss out on a second chance at life.

After my transplant, my mom reached out to my donor, thanking him for his incredible generosity and she continued to keep in touch with him over the years. For the longest time I was incapable of communicating with him. I had no idea what I would say or how I could ever repay my debt to him. Finally, I got over those issues and wrote to him and asked to meet him in person. It was an incredible experience and something I will never forget – we shared a few beers, a few stories, and lots of laughs. I told him about myself and my journey through transplant. I learned all about him, his family, and his experience as a donor. All the while, I realized something beautiful. The debt I felt I owed him was not a debt at all, my survival was something special to him as well. Knowing he was able to help someone else so profoundly was something he took pride in as a fellow human being. Caring for others, even if it’s someone unknown and hundreds of miles away, provides emotions that are essential to the human experience. The caring donation of one individual inspired me to be a compassionate caregiver to many patients. I encourage anyone who can to consider donating and remember the potential impact they could have on another person’s life!