Sunday, October 21, 2018
News Roundup

Owner of Little Greek chain finally meets bone marrow donor who saved his life

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.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Sunday Conversation: Little Greek Fresh Grill president Nick Vojnovic

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.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa restaurant veteran Chuck Winship investing in Little Greek chain

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.

Comments
Nick Kelly’s three takeaways from the Lightning’s 6-3 win over the Blackhawks

Nick Kelly’s three takeaways from the Lightning’s 6-3 win over the Blackhawks

1. The  Lightning put together an impressive response after a tough overtime loss. After dropping the first game on its road trip 5-4 to the Wild on Saturday, it put together a terrific offensive performance in beating the Blackhawks, including ...
Updated: 19 minutes ago
Lightning sets league, franchise shots records in 6-3 win over Blackhawks

Lightning sets league, franchise shots records in 6-3 win over Blackhawks

CHICAGO — Blackhawks goaltender Cam Ward has seen the Lightning more than his fair share of times. Forty-five before Sunday's matchup, to be exact.But in none of those games had Ward faced pressure like he did in the second period of his 46th g...
Updated: 19 minutes ago
Bucs-Browns: A by-the-numbers look at Tampa Bay’s 26-23 overtime win

Bucs-Browns: A by-the-numbers look at Tampa Bay’s 26-23 overtime win

TAMPA — Here's a by-the-numbers look at the Bucs' 26-23 overtime win against the Browns on Sunday:14Bucs' lead at the start of the fourth quarter.69Games, entering Sunday, in which the Bucs had a lead of at least 14 points at the start of the f...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Hillsborough Sheriff: Double homicide at apartment, suspect in custody

Hillsborough Sheriff: Double homicide at apartment, suspect in custody

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a double homicide after discovering the bodies of a woman and a boy in an apartment Sunday evening.About 6:47 p.m., Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said authorities received a 911...
Updated: 1 hour ago
What’s my room number? And other, more special, Lightning road-trip hallmarks

What’s my room number? And other, more special, Lightning road-trip hallmarks

CHICAGO — Before all the Wild fans had the chance to leave Xcel Energy Center on Saturday night, reach their parking garage and let their cars warm up, the Lightning was probably already on a bus to the airport.There, they would take a charter ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Browns-Buccaneers: Beau Allen’s special pregame moment with his mother

Browns-Buccaneers: Beau Allen’s special pregame moment with his mother

TAMPA — As the Buccaneers' locker room buzzed about Chandler Catanzaro's game-winning field goal and the overtime victory, defensive tackle Beau Allen, still in his uniform, sat motionless. It was an emotional end to an emotional day."Just kind...
Updated: 3 hours ago
TPD: Man driving wrong way on Selmon Expressway with lights off kills 68-year-old

TPD: Man driving wrong way on Selmon Expressway with lights off kills 68-year-old

TAMPA — For years, Bamnet Narongchai showed up to the Wat Buddhist temple on Sunday morning to grill chicken for the temple’s weekly market.He was expected to be there this past Sunday, like always. But by the time the market started, the grim news w...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Welcome back, Jameis Winston. Seems like old times

Welcome back, Jameis Winston. Seems like old times

TAMPA — It's who he is.You don't get that by now, four seasons in?He could have won the game for his team. He could have lost the game for his team.It's who he is.Sunday, in his first home start since coming off suspension, Jameis Winston was a...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Bucs-Browns: Chandler Catanzaro converts second-chance kick to deliver Tampa Bay win

Bucs-Browns: Chandler Catanzaro converts second-chance kick to deliver Tampa Bay win

TAMPA — As much as Chandler Catanzaro could try to brush off a missed 40-yard field goal attempt that would have given the Bucs a regulation win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, it wasn't that easy.Kickers rarely get noticed when they're sp...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Jacksonville shooting: 6 shot, 3 in critical condition; Picture of car released

Jacksonville shooting: 6 shot, 3 in critical condition; Picture of car released

JACKSONVILLE — Six people have been shot a few blocks from an NFL stadium in Jacksonville, and three are in critical condition, authorities reported.No suspect is yet in custody, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.About 12:35 p.m., a vehi...
Updated: 5 hours ago