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Tampa man meets stem cell donor who helped his leukemia fight

Jeff Wagner, left, talks with the man he says saved his life, Josef “Sepp” Feuerecker of Germany. He got a stem cell transplant from the German donor five years ago. Feuerecker is visiting Tampa.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Jeff Wagner, left, talks with the man he says saved his life, Josef “Sepp” Feuerecker of Germany. He got a stem cell transplant from the German donor five years ago. Feuerecker is visiting Tampa.

A lot has changed about Jeff Wagner since his marrow stem cell transplant five years ago.

He no longer has some of the allergies he had.

His blood type has changed from O-positive to A-positive.

And he has acquired a taste for German food, something he jokingly thanked his donor for after meeting him last week.

Just after 6 p.m. Wednesday, Wagner, 49, shook hands and embraced the man who saved his life in 2007. Josef "Sepp" Feuerecker and his wife, Maria, flew from Osterhofen, Germany, to spend the week.

The two met at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz before attending the evening service, during which the congregation of several hundred people said a prayer for them in German.

They sat next to each other during the service, and had their arms around each other's shoulders the whole time. When the pastor called them to the front to introduce them, the congregation gave them a standing ovation.

"It's the greatest feeling finally meeting someone that has given you a second chance at life," Wagner said with a big smile on his face.

Feuerecker, 52, agreed.

"I think we're both at a loss for words right now," he said with his German accent.

Wagner's 81-year-old mother, Vera Wagner, tearfully watched and snapped pictures as the two men were talking to each other.

In 2007, her son's doctors told her he wouldn't make it to Christmas.

"To me, it's like a dream come true to finally meet the person that saved your son's life," she said.

Wagner, a University of South Florida alumnus and popular motivational speaker, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003. After a series of treatments, he went into remission. But his cancer returned in May 2007, and doctors told him he wouldn't live long without a transplant.

So, he was entered into the Be the Match national marrow registry and hoped to find a match.

Doctors found two, but they backed out of the procedure at the last minute, Wagner said. Then the doctors looked at the international registry.

Feuerecker was a 10-point match, Wagner said, and he didn't back out.

"God is just an unbelievable writer of our life and our DNA," Wagner said. "It just strengthens me and my church family."

Feuerecker took time off from work to make the donation. His cells were then transplanted into Wagner at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, and the two became "blood brothers," as Wagner put it.

"Most people don't get new brothers when they're almost 50," said Wagner, whose cancer treatments left him in a wheelchair.

And the transplant changed Wagner's DNA.

"I feel like somebody who's getting to meet his twin that he's heard about and known about, but never gotten to meet," he said.

Two years after the procedure, Wagner learned the identity of his donor through registry officials.

The two men have since kept in contact via email and Skype chats, but Wagner decided it was time to meet in person.

He invited the Feuereckers to Tampa, and they are staying at his home until they return to Germany on Thursday.

"We're going to spend the week getting to know each other," Feuerecker said.

On the agenda?

A trip to SeaWorld in Orlando, watching a University of South Florida football game on television, a tour of Moffitt Cancer Center and volunteering at a donor drive at various locations throughout Tampa.

Wagner said he wants it to be the largest donor drive in Tampa history, and hopes it will help save many more lives like his.

"That would make it all worth it for me and Sepp," he said.

He's seeking folks between 18 and 44 years old, especially minorities and multiracial people, to register at sites at the University of South Florida on Tuesday.

For Wagner, the importance of marrow donors is clear.

"He was my last option to live," he said of Feuerecker.

And Feuerecker? He simply wanted to help when he entered the registry.

"I did it for my love of people," he said.

Elizabeth Behrman can be reached at ebehrman@tampabay.com.

>>Fast Facts

Marrow, blood drive

The "Always Finish Strong" drive is 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday. Donation sites will be set up at Moffitt Cancer Center and USF's College of Public Health and Marshall Student Center.

For more information, go to

www.afinishstrong.com.

Tampa man meets stem cell donor who helped his leukemia fight 10/06/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 6, 2012 4:31am]
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