BOCA RATON, FL — A 22-year-old Livingston native who donated stem cells to an anonymous Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patient said the intrusive procedure was worth it when she had the opportunity to meet the recipient, a 40-year-old South Florida mother, at the Gift of Life 5K recently held at South County Regional Park in Boca Raton, FL.
Zoe Miller, a Livingston High School Class of 2013 alumna and current graduate student at Tulane University, joined the Gift of Life marrow registry while on Birthright in Israel in 2014 by doing a simple cheek swab sponsored by the Adelson Family Foundation. At the time, Miller knew she would help if someone was in need, but said she nearly forgot about the cheek swab until she learned that her stem cells were a perfect match for someone two years later.
“Giving blood and all that kind of stuff really scares me, so when I found out that I was a potential match and had to go in for blood work, that really freaked me out,” said Miller. “But I went in—I think I actually fainted—and then they called me back to say I was a perfect match.”
Miller explained that donating stem cells is different from donating bone marrow in that the stem-cell procedure involves sitting with needles in both arms for a few hours, whereas the bone-marrow procedure involves drilling into the lower back while under anesthesia.
“I was really nervous but I figured, if I have this opportunity to help someone, I couldn’t not do it,” said Miller. “I was given very little information about her beforehand, but [meeting her] was incredible.”
Gift of Life, a national non-profit bone marrow and blood stem cell registry headquartered in Boca Raton, recently flew Miller down to meet stem-cell recipient Amy Hearin and her family at its Steps for Life 5K South Florida event.
It was at this event that Miller not only met Hearin, but also learned that she was pregnant with her daughter in 2015 when she began having episodes of shortness of breath and extreme fatigue. These symptoms were originally diagnosed as pregnancy-related anemia, but after her daughter was born, the condition got worse. Less than two weeks later, Hearin was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of lymphoma.
“That was a really emotional thing to find out,” said Miller. “She’s so sweet and her whole family is amazing. It was just so incredible to meet her because I had been thinking, I really hope I get to meet my recipient and I really hope she wants to meet me—because it’s all on the recipient’s end.”
According to Gift of Life, once Hearin learned she needed a transplant, she was determined to find a donor and was confident that the procedure would save her life. Hearin’s sister was devastated that she was not a match, but the entire family was relieved when a donor was found through the registry.
Gift of Life representatives said that there is no better demonstration of why the organization does this work than when “a courageous transplant recipient is able to meet their heroic donor.” During their emotional meeting, Hearin thanked Miller for her bravery, stating that she wouldn’t be here without her and that she nearly named her daughter Zoe in her honor.
“If you hadn’t done what you did, I never would be here for my family, or my daughter or husband,” said Hearin. “I don’t know if you can ever understand the magnitude of the gift that you gave me, but you are a part of me, literally, so thank you.”
According to Miller, the pair has been in touch since meeting in Florida, and that Hearin is even helping her with her job search in New York City.
Miller specified that those who join the registry are not obligated to go through with the procedure if they end up becoming a match for someone, but that she would personally do it all again.
“I didn’t think so after I first did the procedure, but after meeting her and seeing the impact that this has had on her life and her family and her friends, I would definitely do it again,” she said. “I think that everyone should sign up to do the cheek swab because it really is such a life-changing experience."