He didn’t know what to tell Emily.
His daughter knew something was wrong, knew he had gone to the hospital. She thought her dad was just exhausted from traveling to Peru, Hawaii and Seattle to shoot a documentary.
From her dorm room in Gainesville, Emily kept calling.
Bob Croslin, who was 47, rehearsed the words: Cancer — Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Chemotherapy. Bone marrow biopsies. Blood transfusions. Hope?
If you had been diagnosed with this 20 years ago, his doctor said, you’d have been dead in six months.
“We’ll figure this out,” said Bob’s wife, Leslie. Together, they called their daughter.
“Those doctors must be wrong,” Emily said.
Bob was riding his bike 100 miles a week, shooting pictures for Sports Illustrated, Bicycling Magazine, the Wall Street Journal. He was the fittest he’s ever been.
“It can’t be,” Emily kept sobbing that October evening in 2018. “It just can’t be that bad.”
* * *
Bob used to be a photographer at the Tampa Bay Times. I enjoyed working with him a decade ago, before he left to freelance.
Though we didn’t hang outside of the newspaper, we followed each other online. I watched his daughter Emily grow up. And him face cancer.
He hopes someone who reads his story might be able to save some stranger’s life.
* * *
While Bob endured chemo at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, and Emily worried through her senior year at the University of Florida, Leslie spent long hours researching blood cancers.
She learned that Bob’s form of leukemia is rare. About 20,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with it each year. It causes the bone marrow to make massive amounts of abnormal blood cells.
Bob’s oncologist told him, “We’re going to give you so much chemo you’ll wish you were dead.”
“Bring it on,” Bob said. Anything to see Emily graduate, get a job, adopt the dog she had always wanted.
At the hospital, he slumped in a chair while chemicals pumped into his veins. He threw up blood. The chemo fried his esophagus. He lost 25 pounds.
Leslie took care of him, while still teaching fifth-grade math at Berkeley Prep.
Emily called every day. Every time, Bob broke down.
In December, he spiked a fever. He watched his daughter graduate in Gainesville via livestream on his phone, from the intensive care unit.
* * *
Time slowed down for Bob, who seldom slowed down. He doesn’t remember early 2019, except from photos other people took.
For the first time, he wasn’t the one chronicling the journey.
Maybe, he thought, his cancer came from all those chemicals he’d had his hands in, and inhaled, in darkrooms. So many of his photographer friends also had been diagnosed with cancer and brain diseases.
Maybe it doesn’t matter, Leslie kept telling him. She wanted to study, focus on the future.
In the spring of 2019, he started biking again. In May, he felt strong enough to go to Gainesville to see Emily receive her master’s degree. He photographed his daughter on the same campus where he’d graduated with her mother more than two decades before.
He began to think, maybe, he could reclaim his life.
But at the end of summer — just as Emily was starting a job at Raymond James and Leslie was heading back to school — the cancer came back.
“This time,” Bob told Leslie, “it’s going to kill me.”
Beside his bed at Moffitt, she searched. She found support groups for overwhelmed caregivers. And dire statistics which seemed like death sentences.
Then she started reading about stem cell transplants.
* * *
Chemotherapy can kill some leukemia cells. But it can’t completely eradicate them, said Dr. Ahmad Shaker of St. Anthony’s Hospital.
When he first diagnosed Bob, the oncologist had mentioned a potential stem cell transplant, but hoped Bob wouldn’t need one.
Even if you find a donor, the doctor told Bob, you have only a 50 percent chance of surviving two years.
Early stem cell transplants in the 1950s required that donors be a relative. Using long needles, doctors would draw bone marrow from the donor’s pelvis and inject it into the patient, hoping the good cells would overtake the bad. The risk of complications — and death — were high.
Then, in 1979, a doctor desperate to save his 10-year-old daughter let surgeons perform the first transplant from an unrelated donor.
When it worked, the door opened for people to save strangers.
Someone on the other side of the world, it turns out, could have DNA that more closely matches yours than your parents’.
By 1987, more than 10,000 people had swabbed their cheeks and sent DNA to the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry. By 2020, Be the Match included 39 million potential donors.
That same year, 6,467 people got transplants.
“I’d never heard of it,” Leslie said.
These days, donors sit for eight hours, an IV in one arm, while a machine removes blood and separates the blood-forming cells doctors need. Then the machine pumps the blood back into the donor’s body, explained Dr. Rawan Faramand, Bob’s oncologist at Moffitt.
She told him that chances of finding a match are 29% to 79%, depending on ethnicity. White guys like Bob have a better chance, with more donors in that demographic.
Even so, one in five people don’t survive the transplant.
“Give me the paperwork,” Bob told Leslie.
* * *
Many of Bob and Leslie’s friends were too old to sign up for the registry. Donors are supposed to be 18 to 35.
But Emily rallied her followers on social media, got at least a dozen people to join Be the Match and sent away for her own DNA kit.
“Why wouldn’t you?” she asked.
In October 2019, a year after his first round of chemo, Bob came home to wait.
His best bet for a match would have been a biological sibling, but his sister was adopted.
“It was hard not to think that there might be one person out there with a similar genetic make-up who could keep me alive for another year, or the rest of my life,” Bob said.
He kept picturing Emily getting married, buying a house, becoming a mother.
In Europe, and countries with socialized medicine, almost everyone sends in their DNA, said Shaker, the St. Anthony’s doctor. Here, the registry is not nearly as well-known as organ donations, and only one in 220 potential donors ever make a match.
“It’s frustrating, heart-breaking to know that there’s someone out there somewhere who could save your patient,” said Shaker. “We can only hope they’re on that registry.”
* * *
He only had to wait a couple weeks for the call. Doctors had wanted 10 out of 12 DNA markers to line up.
Bob’s potential donor had all 12.
“Genetically perfect!” his oncologist said.
The anonymous donor agreed to go in immediately.
Bob and Leslie ate Thanksgiving dinner from the hospital cafeteria, waiting for the stranger’s donation.
“We’ve been told that your stem cells are in the air,” a nurse had told them.
“From where?” asked Leslie.
A nurse told her, “Europe.”
Bob spent the next day in bed while the donor’s stem cells replaced his own.
He calls Nov. 22 his “rebirth day.”
And in February 2020, Bob got to go home.
* * *
Then the world shut down.
Emily moved into the studio apartment at her parents’ house near Crescent Lake.
She adopted a Corgi — Winston.
Every morning, Bob and his daughter had coffee and walked the dog. Stolen time.
Those two spring months, Bob said, were the greatest gift. He couldn’t stop thinking about the stranger who had shared his cells.
“I’d lost hope in humanity, hope for myself,” he said. “This forced me to realize there are amazing people in this world.”
Then, a soul-crusher: Leukemia cells were sneaking back into his blood. He would need a “top-off” infusion. Would the donor be willing to give more?
Why would some stranger give him another chance?
“I would,” Emily said.
That May, Bob’s donor came through again.
* * *
For the next year, Bob was nauseous, tired, irritable. He took 12 anti-rejection medications and a chemo pill every day. For five days each month, he got chemo shots.
“You can’t do anything but lie in bed. You forget what it feels like to feel well,” Bob said. “But ... it’s better than not being around.”
Slowly, he started pedaling through Alafia River State Park, 25 miles at a time.
And he started booking photo shoots, never more than a week ahead.
“You just do maintenance as long as you can,” he said. “And be grateful for every extra day you get.”
* * *
One night in September 2021, Emily got the call she had been hoping for.
A woman in south Florida needed her stem cells. She was 72, just like her grandmother. And had leukemia, just like her dad.
At Thanksgiving last year, three years after her dad’s diagnosis, Emily started taking shots to stimulate the production of her blood stem cells. For five days, her grandmother put the needle in Emily’s thigh, which ached and made her feel like she had the flu. She told herself it was only a tiny bit of the pain her dad went through.
She was allowed to bring one person to the hospital with her.
On Nov. 29, she and Bob flew to Delray Beach, where nurses strapped Emily to an IV pole and pulled blood from her right arm into a clear bag. A machine processed it, then pumped it into her left arm.
The potentially life-saving stem cells, she said, “looked like a strawberry margarita.”
For six hours, Bob got to sit beside his daughter and watch Mystic Pizza, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, eat lunch from The Cheesecake Factory.
The next morning, they carried coffee to the beach and saw the sunrise.
* * *
Watching Emily, Bob started wondering.
Whose blood was coursing through his veins?
“This person was willing to make a great sacrifice not once but twice,” he told Leslie.
He pictured a young man, smart and athletic, a cyclist, maybe, who drinks IPAs — a 2.0 version of himself?
Just after Christmas, Bob contacted Be the Match. Turns out his donor was a man named Jan in Germany.
For months, Bob pondered what to say.
“I’m not sure where to start but ‘thank you’ seems to be the most obvious place,” he finally emailed in June. “I would like to connect with you to tell you about all of the incredible experiences I’ve been lucky to have since receiving your stem cell donation.”
Twenty minutes later, Bob got a reply.
“First of all let me say how happy I am to hear (and see on your Instagram) how great you’re doing. Seeing all these images of you and your loved ones brang tears to my eyes. My English is not the very best, but I will try my best. I would love to stay connected with you.”
Bob learned that the man lives in Düsseldorf, has a girlfriend, likes David Beckham.
“I’m the same age as your daughter,” wrote the 25-year-old. “If I had to imagine a life without my father, I couldn’t.”
* * *
On a recent afternoon in late October, Leslie met Bob at Moffitt Cancer Center for his latest blood test results.
If the donor’s stem cells accounted for 100% of Bob’s plasma, with no “residual disease,” he would get to stop chemo.
And hopefully start to feel whole.
Four years had passed since Bob was diagnosed. Bills with Cigna were in the millions.
“Maybe this will be our last trip here for a while,” Leslie told Bob outside the Bone Marrow Transplant unit. They talked about Thanksgiving. Emily wondered if she should host at the house she had just bought. They had so much to be thankful for.
Bob was starting to play guitar again, pedal more miles up steeper trails. The cycling documentary he’d been working on had been accepted to a film festival.
And he’d invited his donor and his girlfriend to visit Florida, stay in the studio apartment, eat seafood and see the beaches.
First, though, Bob and Leslie leaned close to the doctor’s screen. They weren’t sure what they were seeing.
“That’s 100% donor bone marrow cells,” Dr. Faramand said. “You’re in a beautiful place.”
Bob smiled at Leslie, who was trying not to cry.
“So you said if the test results are good …” he began.
“You can stop treatment,” said the doctor. “You can try it and—”
“Get my life back?” Bob asked.
“We didn’t dare make plans,” Leslie said.
“Well, now you can,” said the doctor.
Bob and Leslie left the hospital holding hands.
He couldn’t wait to tell Emily.
How to join the registry
Want to save someone’s life? Swab your cheek, and you could.
Every three minutes someone is diagnosed with blood cancer. Your stem cells or bone marrow could help patients with 70 different diseases.
If you’re age 18-35, you can order a free kit to be mailed to your home. Just swab, send back a DNA sample, and join the registry of 39 million potential donors around the world.
In 2020 alone, stem cell donations saved 6,467 people.
For more information: bethematch.org.