CLEARWATER —For more than a year, Nick Vojnovic didn’t know the name of the person who saved his life.
He knew she was in her early 20s. A woman. But he didn’t know where she lived, why she made this sacrifice for him or if he’d ever get to thank her.
On Jan. 20, 2017, Vojnovic, the 58-year-old owner of the Little Greek Fresh Grill chain, laid in a hospital bed at Moffitt Cancer Center and watched this stranger’s stem cells flow through a tube into his veins.
He had been diagnosed with Myelofibrosis in 2016, a bone marrow disorder that’s a precursor to leukemia, and doctors told him the only way he’d survive more than three years was with a bone marrow and stem cell transplant.
The family prepared for the worst. His daughter, Lauren, tattooed "I love you very much, dad," on her arm in his handwriting so she could look at it on the wedding day he’d surely miss.
But then came hope. Of the 30 million potential donors in the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry, only one person had the genetic combination to match his.
Caroline Gomez had given a cheek swab in 2013 as a student at American University during a donor drive on the Washington, D.C., campus. She quickly forgot about it. Graduated, got a job in international development.
In summer of 2016, she got a call from Be the Match, the same organization that swabbed her cheek three years earlier, asking if she was still willing to help save a life.
She spent four hours Jan. 19, 2017 hooked to a machine in a Washington hospital as her healthy cells flowed into a bag soon to be rushed to Florida.
For the past year, Gomez, now 24, often wondered about the man who received the donation — what he looked like and where he was. Be the Match has a policy to keep donor and recipient matches anonymous for one year in case the transplant is not successful, said senior community engagement representative Marc Silver.
But for Be the Match’s annual meeting in Clearwater this week, Silver said the Minneapolis-based nonprofit wanted to do something special.
Vojnovic, of Valrico, now back at work after a recovery that ravaged his body, had been waiting for a chance to thank this woman, "somewhere out there who was willing to step up." Not only had she saved his life, she also turned his entire family into ambassadors for marrow donation.
His wife, René, doesn’t leave home without swab kits in her purse and has motivated strangers, her classmates at St. Petersburg College, anyone who will listen, to enter their DNA into the donor registry.
So on Wednesday, donor and recipient mingled in an event room at Hampton Inn & Suites on Clearwater Beach, not knowing who was who in the room of about 50. They watched as Silver played pre-recorded videos of Vojnovic and Gomez each talking about their experience.
And finally, by the time there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, Gomez got up from her chair and walked into Vojnovic’s open arms.
"If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here today," Vojnovic said, weeping. "You saved my life."
"I just think about all the memories you are constantly making with your family now and I’m so glad to be apart of this," Gomez said, weeping.
They had so much to catch up on. Gomez wanted to know when his birthday was, more about Vojnovic’s family. René Vojnovic and their two grown children, Jon and Lauren, embraced Gomez, her parents and boyfriend with long hugs, eyes squinted tightly through tears.
The Be the Match recruiters and volunteers there for their banquet reached for boxes of tissues and held hands over gaped mouths.
Vojnovic handed Gomez a bouquet of pink roses and a Tiffany’s bracelet engraved with her donation date.
He said he hoped she wouldn’t mind him pestering her from now on. She’s part of the family now, a second daughter.
Gomez said her mission is to spread the word about donation and get as many people enlisted into the registry as possible. She started with her boyfriend, Marc Gottschalk, 23.
He gave a cheek swab to the registry in the fall.
Earlier this month he got a call. Gottschalk is a match.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.