Nine years ago, Boyd Dunleavy made an appointment to see why he was getting constant nosebleeds and bruising on his legs. He wasn’t sure what was happening but knew he needed answers.
The results were ominous. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, a rare form of blood cancer. He was told he had less than a year to live — unless they quickly found a stem cell donor.
Dunleavy was a successful 37-year-old banker in London, Ontario, at the time. He was married with three young children, his youngest daughter just months old. He wasn’t afraid to die, but he was also confident it wasn’t his time. So, he fought. His wife, who was scheduled to go back to work after maternity leave, took time off again to help him through the process. Dunleavy could only hope and pray for some positive news.
After his successive rounds of chemotherapy, that positive news came when a matching stem cell donor was found. In May 2012, Dunleavy went into a surgery room for a transplant.
While there were challenges, the surgery was successful, and eventually, Dunleavy was able to lead an everyday life again.
But years had passed, and Dunleavy had no idea who was responsible for saving his life. That was until last week at the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon in Orlando, Florida.
Out of the goodness of his heart, Nathan Barnes put his name on the bone marrow registration list, and was four years into his navy service when he received the call.
He matched a cancer patient and was asked to come in for a stem cell donation. He called his mother, a retired nurse, and asked her questions. He was nervous, but knowing that he could save somebody’s life made it an easy decision for him. His stem cells were harvested from his blood.
But he knew nothing of the person who would be receiving them.
For Dunleavy, he had to wait for a year after the transplant to reach out to his anonymous donor. That was the proposed time for all stem cell transplant procedures to ensure his body was cancer-free.
Nathan Barnes, American. Dunleavy googled his name and immediately found him on Facebook.
Dunleavy sent him a message, thanking him repeatedly for saving his life.
“It was astounding, making that first contact,” Dunleavy recently told ESPN.com. “I didn’t know he was American; I didn’t know the Canadian registry talked to the American.”
Before they met, Barnes said he knew his stem cells could save somebody’s life, but to hear from Dunleavy — a son, a father, a husband — for the first time made him realize why he decided to be a donor in the first place.
But because of Barnes’ schedule in the Navy, an in-person meeting did not seem possible. However, this year, when Dunleavy heard that Barnes was stationed in Florida, he had an idea.
What kept him positive during the journey?
Disney World had been Dunleavy’s refuge when he was sick, so he decided he wanted to run a half-marathon and arrange for Barnes to spend a weekend with him and his family there.
When they finally left each other, Boyd Dunleavy and Nathan Barnes felt as if they were family.
Two days before the race, a nervous Dunleavy met Barnes for the first time. He’d imagined the person who saved his life for years. He wondered what he would say, but words failed him when he met him for a tour around the park. He gave Barnes a bear hug and didn’t let go. Afterwards, they walked around Animal Kingdom. Dunleavy told anyone who would listen that Barnes had saved his life eight years ago, and they were meeting for the first time.
“You see those stories where somebody was adopted as a kid, and they meet their parents years later — it felt somewhat like that, like meeting a long-lost relative,” Dunleavy said.
At the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon, Barnes stood at the finish line holding back tears. He placed the medal around Dunleavy’s neck after the 45-year-old Canadian crossed the finish line.
“We did it, we made it,” said Dunleavy, throwing his hands in the air.
For Barnes, watching Dunleavy run, finding out about Dunleavy’s life and meeting his family for the first time was emotional. Words hardly captured what he felt at the moment, but he quietly embraced the moment.
Dunleavy and Barnes genuinely enjoyed each other’s company in the time they had together. They talked and laughed. And when they finally left each other, they had developed a genuine friendship. More so, they were family.
Choices during the treatment
Dunleavy went through three rounds of chemotherapy. Cancer had to be in remission for the stem cell transplant to work. If it was, he then had to hope a donor became available. When no match was immediately found, he had two choices: go through two more rounds of chemotherapy and hope that gave him enough time for a donor and a transplant — or give up.
Parting message to cancer survivor
Boyd Dunleavy is a two time Blood Cancer Survivor. He had a lot of support from his community financially and spiritually. Finally, he recovered. In February 2012, he started feeling unwell again, and cancer relapsed. He cried for three days. He is a true believer in God. One fine day he started feeling very sick, and he was almost on the verge of his death. On that day, he saw a miracle. He saw Jesus. Believe it or not, everything seemed apparent when the doctors did a Biopsy the next day. One of his friends said he would like to run a marathon to raise cancer funds for Boyd. It was a life turning moment for him. He got motivated, and he started running. He had run a 30 km Disney marathon and is still running happily along with his family and friends on the side.