During his 15 years as president of the Beef 'O' Brady's chain, Nick Vojnovic recalls, there was a fundraiser at the Valrico corporate store for a child battling leukemia. The event included a "Be The Match" bone marrow registry drive and Vojnovic gladly went through the process of signing up, placing a cotton swab in his mouth, and turning the sample over to officials. He had no idea if he would ever be a match.
Vojnovic, 57, moved on and eventually bought into the Little Greek Fresh Grill chain, becoming president and helping build the upstart franchise into 29 locations. Along the way, he turned out to be a match for someone in need of a bone marrow transplant.
But doctors discovered a complication: His blood cells were more tear-shaped than oval. Not only did they reject him as a donor, but over time, the condition grew worse. Earlier this year, doctors diagnosed him with primary myelofibrosis, a life-threatening condition that will require a bone marrow transplant and a challenging recovery period.
Vojnovic recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer Ernest Hooper about the diagnosis and why he's choosing to go public with his battle.
Tell me about how you learned of the diagnosis
When the results came back, she wrote on a little piece of paper: primary myelofibrosis. I go, 'What's that?' She says it's a pretty bad disease … and the only cure is a bone marrow transplant, a stem cell transplant. I say, 'Can you give me some information on this?'
She goes back and brings me out a piece of paper. It's an Internet, Google search thing, and basically where she put me, she says, 'You have three years to live.'
Oh my god
It's overwhelming. You can't fathom it. Your brain's spinning. You're kind of not hearing what they're saying. I hadn't even brought my wife because I didn't think it would be that big of a deal.
I go home and start doing the research and initially, a lot of it is so gloomy because it's older data. Then you start seeing some doctors and names that say, 'Hey we're testing this, we're trying this.' You think maybe there's some hope.
So the doctors first said you could delay the transplant. What happened?
Ultimately, I said I don't want to just sit around and wait so let me at least do a trial. Maybe it'll work and if it doesn't work, they'll learn something for the guys behind me. Unfortunately, you're kind of a guinea pig. They put me on a trial with two different drugs. The one concern my doctors had is that this disease can turn into acute myeloid leukemia. If I get that, it's very dangerous. So three or four weeks ago, one of my markers spiked up and the doctor said, 'Time for a transplant.' So that's when I said I need to get a donor.
Did you find a match?
There are 14 million people in the "Be the Match" donor registry and I have one match. Now they have to find out does she still want to do it, is she pregnant, is she healthy. So we're in a little bit of limbo.
I told my wife there's 14,000 people who don't have a match, so let's use our network to try to get the word out and encourage people to go "Be the Match," get the kit and sign up … not so much to help me but to help others. It's a relatively easy way to save a life.
How did you find the motivation to want to help others when you're struggling with this?
It's a terrible situation to be in. I think, 'Do I tell people or not?' That's always a big struggle. Thom Stork, who runs the Florida Aquarium, he had leukemia. I said, 'Thom, when do you tell people?' He said, 'I was blown away by how many people rallied around me.' People want to help and it is really wonderful to see how much people care. Everybody has got stuff in life. Everybody has things they have to deal with. Some people you know they have things and some people you don't know, but if you can help other people out — that's what we're all about, helping people out when the chips are down.
Do you worry about the restaurants?
What happens is that you don't realize how your life is so entangled. My mother has dementia. So we moved her down. I visit my mom every day but she doesn't know who I am. We're trying to sell her house. Unfortunately, I have to plan that I'm going to be out of commission for awhile or I might not make it. Like with Little Greek, Chuck Winship, the former CEO at Beef 'O' Brady's, has offered to meet with my team and make sure everything is tracking well.
People are stepping up and helping out, but I say to my wife, 'What do I do with all these issues I have going on?' That's going to be quite challenging. I have 10 different areas to cover and who's going to do it. Who's going to visit my mom?
How do you deal with all of this?
For me, keeping myself busy with other stuff helps because if you focus on it, it just eats you up. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and wonder, 'How in the world?' I'm a nice guy, I help people out, I eat well, I exercise. I thought I did all the right stuff, but genetically something just switched in my body and instead of fighting that defect, it just let it go. But I look at my wife and say, 'No regrets.' Everybody has their journey and this is mine. Hopefully I can get through it. When I go to church, I pray for my daughter and son. It's hard for them because they have to deal with their mortality.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at email@example.com. Follow @hoop4you.