Nine years ago, Boyd Dunleavy made an appointment to see why he was getting constant nosebleeds and bruising on his legs. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but knew he needed answers.
The results were ominous. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a rare form of blood cancer. He was told he had less than a year to live — unless they quickly found a stem cell donor.
Dunleavy went through three rounds of chemotherapy. The cancer had to be in remission for the stem cell transplant to work. If it was, he then had to hope a donor became available. When no match was immediately found, he had two choices: go through two more rounds of chemotherapy and hope that gave him enough time for a donor and a transplant — or give up.
Dunleavy was a successful 37-year-old banker in London, Ontario at the time. He was married with three young children, his youngest daughter just months old. He wasn’t afraid to die, but he was also confident it wasn’t his time. So he fought. His wife, who was scheduled to go back to work after maternity leave, took time off again to help him through the process. Dunleavy could only hope and pray for some positive news.
After his next rounds of chemotherapy, that positive news came when a matching stem cell donor was found. In May 2012, Dunleavy went into a surgery room for a transplant.
While there were challenges, the surgery was successful, and eventually Dunleavy was able to lead a normal life again.
But years had passed and Dunleavy had no idea who was responsible for saving his life. That was until last week at the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon in Orlando, Florida.
Nathan Barnes, who out of the goodness of his heart put his name on the bone marrow registration list, was four years into his navy service when he received the call.
He was a match with a cancer patient and was asked to come in for a stem cell donation. He called his mother, a retired nurse, and asked her questions. He was nervous, but knowing that he could possibly save somebody’s life made it an easy decision for him. His stem cells were harvested from his blood.
But he knew nothing of the person who would be receiving them.
For Dunleavy, he had to wait for a year after the transplant to reach out to his anonymous donor. That was the proposed time for all stem cell transplant procedures to make sure his body was cancer-free.
The file read: Nathan Barnes, American. Dunleavy googled his name and immediately found him on Facebook.
Dunleavy sent him a message, thanking him over and over again for saving his life.
“It was incredibly surprising, making that first contact,” Dunleavy recently told ESPN.com. “I didn’t know he was American; I didn’t know the Canadian registry talked to the American.”
Before they met, Barnes said he knew his stem cells could possibly saved somebody’s life, but to hear from Dunleavy — a son, a father, a husband — for the first time made him realize why he decided to be a donor in the first place.
But because of Barnes’ schedule in the Navy, an in-person meeting did not seem possible. However, this year, when Dunleavy heard that Barnes was stationed in Florida, he had an idea.
Disney World had been Dunleavy’s refuge when he was sick, so he decided he wanted to run a half-marathon and arrange for Barnes to spend a weekend with him and his family there.
Two days before the race, a nervous Dunleavy met Barnes for the first time. He’d imagined the person who saved his life for years. He wondered what he would say, but when he met him for a tour around the park, words failed him. He gave Barnes a bear hug and didn’t let go. Afterward, they walked around Animal Kingdom. Dunleavy told anyone who would listen that eight years ago Barnes had saved his life and they were meeting for the first time.
“You see those stories where somebody was adopted as a kid and they meet their parents years later — it felt somewhat like that, like meeting a long-lost relative,” Dunleavy said.
At the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon, Barnes stood at the finish line holding back tears. He placed the medal around Dunleavy’s neck after the 45-year-old Canadian crossed the finish line.
“We did it, we made it,” said Dunleavy, throwing his hands in the air.
For Barnes, watching Dunleavy run, finding out about Dunleavy’s life and meeting his family for the first time was emotional. Words hardly captured what he felt at the moment, but he quietly embraced the moment.
Dunleavy and Barnes genuinely enjoyed each other’s company in the time they had together. They talked and laughed. And when they finally left each other, they had developed a genuine friendship. More so, they were family.