One Big Family: Transplant Recipient Meets his Donor

For most of his life, Jim Calhoun never paid attention to college football; his football fandom started and ended with the New York Giants. This year, however, he’ll be closely following the team at Tulane University — in particular, the offensive lineman who saved his life.

In 2017, Calhoun, now 45, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) with a Philadelphia chromosome, an unfavorable prognostic marker. His diagnosis came while he was on vacation — Calhoun fainted and hit his head on the counter, and was taken to the hospital.

“I was scared, but I tried to remain positive,” says Calhoun. “I told myself, ‘I’m not giving up; I’m going to fight this.’”

Because of his type of cancer, Calhoun needed an allogeneic stem cell transplant, one that uses stem cells from a family member or unrelated matched donor. While his doctors at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC) searched for a donor, Calhoun began chemotherapy in Albany, New York, at a hospital close to his home.

He didn’t know it then, but his match was only a few states away, wrapping up his junior season at Brown University. Three years before Calhoun’s diagnosis, Christian Montano, now 23, joined the Be the Match Registry®, a marrow registry program operated by the National Marrow Donor Program®, as part of a team-sponsored event.

Montano and Calhoun.

Calhoun and Montano were a perfect match: They matched on all 12 genes that are tested for transplant compatibility. Montano donated bone marrow after learning he was a match, and in 2018, Calhoun received his transplant under the care of Corey Cutler, MD, MPH, medical director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Dana-Farber.

“I was able to give someone a second chance on life in exchange for being sore for a couple of days. That made it easy for me to say yes,” explains Montano.

According to registry regulations, a donor and a recipient can only contact one another one year after the procedure. As soon as a year had gone by, Montano and Calhoun had their first phone call.

“That first conversation lasted hours, and by the end I felt like I’d known him forever,” Calhoun recalls.

The moment Montano and Calhoun met for the first time.

One phone call led to another, and soon the Montanos invited Calhoun and his wife to join them in their Connecticut home for what they called a “celebration of life” event. The party gave the two a chance to meet in person and allowed Montano to introduce Calhoun to his friends and family.

“He saved my life, and a thank-you just isn’t enough,” says Calhoun. “I gained a brother, and I feel like I have another family now.”

This year, Montano (now a graduate transfer student) will travel with his college football team, the Tulane University Green Waves, to New York, where they will take on the Army West Point Black Knights. Calhoun will attend the game, which is only a few hours from his home, and Tulane plans to host a short celebration for the pair before kickoff.

Following his transplant, Calhoun has worked to get back into shape, and has since returned to lifting weights and biking. The father of two adult children says he’s working hard to adjust to his “new normal” — including training the family’s two-year-old dog, Bailey.

“I feel great, and I don’t worry as much now,” says Calhoun. “I’m doing more of what I like to do, and that includes finding ways to give back and help others.”

6 thoughts on “One Big Family: Transplant Recipient Meets his Donor”

  1. I am a fellow leukemia survivor and transplant recipient and met Jim Calhoun while in Boston for treatment. Jimmy is amazing and I am so pleased he and his donor have met. I am corresponding with my German bone marrow donor and someday hope to meet him in person. We are all warriors who have a debt of gratitude to Dana Farber Cancer Institute, BWH, and all the talented and skilled physicians, researchers, nurses, and staff who make it all possible!

  2. I am also a transplant recipient, living a normal healthy life again after being treated for lymphoma at DFCI. My donor is in Austria. We have corresponded, but not met.

    Before I got sick, I never really appreciated how many wonderful people there are making their way through the world, be they donors, caregivers and researchers, or many others who have not directly participated in saving my life, but are effecting positive outcomes for others. In moments of reflection like this, I feel overwhelmed with awe, wonder and gratitude.

  3. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. The Gift of Life. It is a feeling of gratitude & overwhelming emotion, beyond words. I too am a bone marrow transplant recipient. I was diagnosed with AML in May, 2017 – with a FLT3 mutation, like Calhoun, an unfavorable mutation … BUT Dr. Stone at DFCI had led a global, 13 year clinical trial for FLT3 that gained FDA approval 28 days before my diagnosis!! This new drug was part of my LIFE SAVING treatment protocol. I had my bone marrow transplant on 12/1/17 … My Angel Donor was a 29 year old male from Wales ???????! A perfect match! I have to wait 2 years to sign consent forms to visit. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. Donors are Angels on earth, giving us second chances at life. It is an incredible act of selflessness and generosity. It is a complex treatment landscape that requires the brilliant ecosystem at DFCI & BWH – researchers, Drs, nurses, PCAs, hospital staff, etc … it takes Teamwork to fight Cancer … I love the new commercial – “you might have cancer, but what cancer doesn’t know is that you have US …” – DFCI!! Thank you for your brilliant, compassionate minds & hearts! Forever Grateful!! Sincerely, Kim

  4. I too was diagnosed with ALL in June 2017. After 15 months of various chemotherapy and immunotherapy I was in remission and MRD negative. That made me ready for a stem cell transplant which I had 11/27/18 also from an unrelated and unknown donor. I have communicated thru Dana Farber with my donor and he has replied. I can’t wait for the one year mark so that we can get to know one another. In his letter he said “ he would not hesitate to donate again” it truly is amazing how giving and caring people can be. Jim Calhoun congrats and stay strong!! And Dana Farber Thank Yoy for all you do.

  5. I had my transplant in October of 2013. My life saver was a young man from Germany. After 2 years we were able to make contact and have been chatting on line ever since.
    In 2 weeks my wife and I will head to Rome where we will get to meet my hero, Nico who is coming from Germany with his girlfriend.
    Reading this story just gets me all the more excited for that day.
    Thank you for sharing your story, Jim.

  6. This story is awesome. I am post SCT 5 months and hope to contact my unrelated be tge match donor. All I know is my donor is a 45 year old female. We were a 6 out of 8 match. Every day I Thank God for good people and for being alive. I love life.

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