Finding the Perfect Match
Before being diagnosed with cancer, Houston native LaShonda Goines suffered four strokes, multiple aneurysms, and a blocked carotid artery. LaShonda was used to facing illness, but not as a patient; she had been an OR nurse for twenty years at MD Anderson Cancer Center, yet suddenly found herself needing care.
“I was lost and confused,” LaShonda recalls, thinking of the summer of 2017 when she was diagnosed with two types of blood cancers, Myelodysplastic syndromes, and Myeloproliferative Neoplasms.
Both forms of cancers affect how blood cells are formed in the bone marrow. Myelodysplastic syndromes define the group of cancers in which blood cells in the bone marrow cannot mature properly, and therefore never become healthy. Myeloproliferative Neoplasms occur when the body produces too many white or red blood cells in the bone marrow, creating problems for blood circulation. With both blood cancers wreaking havoc on LaShonda’s health, it was evident that she would need new blood-forming cells, meaning a transplant.
“Fear and doubt began to kick in,”
as LaShonda further learned that her insurance would pay for everything but a donor search, which was the only option as both her sons were only half matches. Still, LaShonda’s transplant coordinator searched the donor database, hoping to find a match while LaShonda set up a GoFundMe page to cover the cost of a potential transplant. Despite the added stress, LaShonda kept her spirits high while she was a patient at MD Anderson; she constantly visited and checked on other patients, making jokes and telling stories to keep them content. She was well known on her floor and could never ignore her vocation as a nurse, even while suffering. Ultimately, LaShonda remained positive, hoping and waiting for the perfect match to surface.
In 2013, four years before LaShonda’s diagnosis, 22 year-old Akeem Martin was attending Central Texas College. While walking through the cafeteria, he noticed a Be The Match booth asking for students to join the registry, and he decided to sign up. Akeem remembers, “I didn’t really know what the registry was at the time, I thought it was a blood drive the school was hosting.” He did not even realize the importance of what he did, for another four years.
By the summer of 2017, Akeem had become an Army reservist and firefighter and was currently deployed in Virginia. It having been years since he signed up, Akeem was surprised when his sister called him, telling him that Be The Match was trying to get a hold of him.
Despite the time that had passed, since he offered to donate, but Akeem recalls that “immediately the answer to donation was a yes,” and he started preparing for the transplant. The procedure required Akeem’s peripheral blood stem cells. This type of donation is nonsurgical and takes around eight hours; removing the donor’s blood through a needle which passes through a machine that collects all the blood-forming cells to be transplanted. Before the procedure, Akeem was injected with the drug filgrastim, which increases the number of these blood forming cells. Every day for five days, Akeem went to a facility in Falls Church, Virginia to receive injections. On the fifth day, with his mother and best friend at his side, Akeem donated his blood-forming cells. After a couple of days of aches and fatigue, Akeem recovered, returning to work and wondering who received his donation. His recipient, of course, was LaShonda.
After finding there was a match, LaShonda went to her insurance board, the Head of Human Resources, and many other operations to plead for coverage. Thankfully, the insurance company decided to cover the cost and after waiting six months, LaShonda excitedly prepared for a transplant. While the actual blood transfusion took only an hour, LaShonda met with many difficulties during her recovery. In her stomach and throat, LaShonda experienced GvHD, or graft-versus host disease, which occurs when the donated blood views the recipient’s body as foreign and attacks the body. During this time, however, LaShonda learned of her donor, Akeem, and hoped that her several hospitalizations posttransplant wouldn’t intervene with her desire and ability to meet the man she says, “I consider...my third son.” She was determined to recover and personally thank the individual who saved her life.
Fortunately, LaShonda’s health improved and in 2018 in Minneapolis, LaShonda and Akeem met for the first time at the Be The Match Council Meeting. Along with her two sons and mother, LaShonda “finally got to meet a reflection of God’s love in the flesh,” making that day one of the most memorable for both herself and Akeem. Akeem had similar reactions, saying “I instantly gained an extended family.” Recently, Akeem moved back to Houston, and while the two communicated regularly prior to his move, Akeem is sure that he, LaShonda, and their families will be spending even more time with each other. Both Akeem and LaShonda are forever changed by this experience; Akeem, a firefighter, has saved lives but has also seen them “end for so many in the blink of an eye.” Yet, his donation uncovered another way one can act selflessly for another “whose whole world is counting on you.” LaShonda considers herself “a warrior and a conqueror,” and feels she is still conquering battles every day.
Today, LaShonda plans to travel more; she recently visited Cozumel, Mexico, and intends to explore Jamaica and South Africa in the future. Akeem spends much of his time fishing, traveling and going to the beach while also avoiding cold weather and thin crust pizza, both definitive dislikes of Akeem’s. The greatest reminder, which LaShonda emphasizes, is that “there is still work to do.” Both she and Akeem note the importance of their continued support in advocating for more to join the donor registry, as LaShonda frequently volunteers her time for Be The Match. “Because I’ve conquered my battle doesn’t mean the war is won,” LaShonda says about her and Akeem’s journey to continually support the donation and transplantation community.