It was the 2022 Fiesta Bowl. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan employee Brian Williams, a University of Michigan alumnus, was watching his Wolverines take on Texas Christian University in Phoenix.
It was the first time U-M had ever played TCU. Williams had brought along his family for the historic playoff matchup – but the highlight of the day was at halftime when he met with a TCU alumnus and his family.
That TCU alumnus was the bone marrow donor that had saved Williams’ life eight years ago. The two exchanged hugs, and Williams expressed his heartfelt thanks.
“I was able to thank (my donor) in person for allowing me to be here, and allowing me to spend this time with my family,” Williams said. “I’ve had eight years to see my son graduate from high school, and go to college; and my daughter is going to be a senior in high school.”
Eight years ago, Williams was surprised with a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia in the winter of 2015. He had been feeling exhausted nearly all the time and had frequent aches and pains. A blood test revealed Williams had bigger issues – and after consulting with an oncologist, he was quickly admitted to the hospital for a month.
After three rounds of chemotherapy, Williams found a match on the National Marrow Donor Program and received a stem cell transplant in March 2016. A year later, he exchanged contact information with the donor that saved his life – who happened to be a young man in his 20s from Houston, Texas. The two stayed in touch throughout the years; wishing each other happy birthday and following their lives through social media.
When the first-ever U-M and TCU matchup was announced for the Fiesta Bowl in 2022, Williams said he knew the opportunity was one he couldn’t pass up – as he was a U-M alumnus, and his donor was a TCU alumnus. Though the Wolverines lost the game, Williams said it was the most memorable game of his life.
The cancer journey has turned Williams, an 18-year Blue Cross human resources employee, into an advocate for bone marrow donation. He had joined the National Bone Marrow Registry more than a decade ago, but the first time he matched through the program – he matched himself.
“There are millions of people out there who don’t have matches that need matches. For me as an African American man, there are less African Americans on the registry. Typically you have better success if you match someone of the same ethnicity,” Williams said. “There is less of a chance of African Americans finding a match than others. That was one of the reasons why I joined.”
Williams has led bone marrow registry drives, helped to fundraise more than $32,000 for leukemia research through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and continues to share his story of successful treatment.
“For a lot of people going through this – that’s one of the most helpful things: hearing positive stories about people going through cancer treatment,” Williams said. “I know for stem cell donation, it’s not a complicated process. In most cases, it’s just like donating blood.”
The National Marrow Donor Program through bethematch.org accepts donors age 18 to 40 years old. After registering online, potential donors submit a cheek swab and wait to be matched. Once being identified as a match, donors are asked to act quickly to help a waiting patient.
According to the National Marrow Donor Program, 85% of donations involve no surgery and are similar to donating plasma. Learn more at bethematch.org.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Brian Williams