From Diagnosis to Gratitude: A Calgary Man's Journey to Meet His Life-Saving Donor

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Calgary Man Travels to U.K. to Meet Life-Saving Donor

Imagine going on a trip of a lifetime, but with a purpose far greater than sightseeing. That’s precisely what Calgary resident Rod Neander experienced when he recently traveled to the U.K. Rod’s journey wasn’t just about exploring new places; it was about meeting the man who saved his life.

A Sudden Diagnosis

Rod Neander, an avid skier and a family man, was living a healthy and active life until a sudden blood cancer diagnosis turned his world upside down. In 2019, he began his fight against lymphoma at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, undergoing rounds of grueling chemotherapy. Despite the intense treatments, it became clear that a stem cell transplant was his best hope for survival.

“It is kind of a dramatic point. You’re either going to make it or you won’t through a stem cell transplant,” Rod shared, reflecting on the critical phase of his treatment.

The Search for a Match

Rod’s immediate family, including his sisters, weren’t matches for the stem cell transplant he so desperately needed. This led to a global search for a compatible donor. After several nerve-wracking months, a perfect match was found. The donor was a young man from northern England who had signed up for the stem cell registry eight years prior.

“It’s quite remarkable — after eight years we find the guy and he has the same phone number and he’s still willing to do it. He is still healthy. There’s a lot of things that could’ve gone wrong,” Rod marveled.

The Donation

Four years ago, Tom Marshall’s frozen stem cells were flown across the Atlantic to Calgary, giving Rod a new lease on life. This year, the two men finally met face-to-face in Manchester.

“It’s a wonderful thing to shake his hand and give him a hug and say thank you. If he had not done it, I might not be here,” Rod said, expressing his deep gratitude.

For Tom, the experience was equally profound. “Four years after the donation and he is still alive and still getting to spend precious time with his family. For me, it’s an honor to have been able to be a part of that. I know how grateful he is,” Tom said from his home in Penistone, near Sheffield.

A Bond Like Family

Over the years, Rod and Tom have developed a bond akin to that of family. Their lives have changed in remarkable ways since the donation. Rod witnessed his daughter’s graduation, while Tom recently married and welcomed a baby girl into his life.

“I hope this is even more uplifting for him (with) all the other things happening and he has saved some guy in Canada’s life,” Rod laughed, noting Tom’s incredible year.

Tom recalled the minor discomfort he experienced during the donation process. “It’s a minor inconvenience. Especially after meeting him and knowing Rod was the recipient, because he is such a great guy,” he said.

The Importance of Stem Cell Donation

Currently, nearly 1,000 people in Canada are waiting for life-saving stem cell transplants. The Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell registry actively seeks donors between the ages of 17 and 35 to help meet this critical need.

Reflecting on his journey, Rod said, “It kind of feels like we are family now. My body produces his blood. It’s quite remarkable to think about that.”

He emphasized the importance of the donor’s role amidst the vast support network he had. “There must’ve been 200 doctors and medical professionals that I dealt with that were there to help me and keep me alive and keep me moving forward, but it really took that one donor to make the difference. To give me a new chance at life.”

Connecting After Donation

After the donation, there’s typically a period of waiting before the donor and recipient can connect, as full recovery usually takes at least two years. When the registry reached out to Tom, he didn’t hesitate to agree to meet Rod. “The registry got in touch with me and said, ‘Would you be interested in speaking with your donor? He’s expressed interest,’ and I said, ‘Why not,’” Tom recalled.

Their first meeting happened online two years ago. When Tom’s daughter was born, Rod sent a meaningful gift—a necklace with a jewel that had been in his family for a hundred years. “It really blew us away — the gift from his family to ours … and what an amazing person he really is,” Tom said.

A Deeper Connection

The experience of being a stem cell donor took on new meaning for Tom after becoming a father. “When I first donated, I saw it as an opportunity to save someone’s life, but since becoming a dad and speaking to Rod, it’s meant even more. He has time not only for himself, but for his family as well and he’s been able to see his daughter graduate and it really brings home the importance of stem cell donation.”

Support Systems

Rod also credits The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada (LLSC) for their unwavering support throughout his journey. The LLSC provides personalized support and resources for cancer survivors, including peer support matches, virtual support groups, and other essential services.

“The society has been a pivotal touchpoint during my blood cancer experience, and continues to be,” Rod said.

Join the Conversation

Rod and Tom’s story is a testament to the life-changing power of stem cell donation. Have you had similar experiences, or do you have thoughts on this incredible journey? Share your opinions and join the conversation below in the comments.