At a time in their lives when most high school graduates laze away the summer, waiting for college, John Garrett McGuire received the worst news of his life.
Just weeks after his own high school graduation in 2011, McGuire, 19, at the time, was diagnosed with leukemia — a blood cancer that begins in the bone marrow and though treatable, kills more than 21,000 people per year.
The former high school wrestler and fitness enthusiast said he knew something was wrong when he couldn’t lift pizza boxes at the pizzeria where he worked. Too weak even to stand, McGuire, who rarely ever called in sick, asked his boss if he could go home. Life, as he knew it, would never be the same and shortly after that day McGuire began his first of several rounds of chemotherapy.
“I was getting treatment at the cancer center in Savannah and that could have been my life for the next two or three years,” said McGuire. “But then the doctors sat us down and told us about the possibility of a transplant — and then I was on the registry.”
The registry is a bone marrow transplant list, and for McGuire it would be a saving grace. But first, the ailing teen would need a blood match. That’s when doctors recommended an organization called Be The Match, a Minnesota-based bone marrow donor program that encourages healthy men and women to donate blood and marrow and supports victims and family members through what can often be a lonely recovery process.
“Every time I would go to the cancer clinic, I would be the youngest one there,” said McGuire of the months leading up to his transplant surgery. “I was always the youngest one on the cancer floor.”
Thanks to Be The Match and a little bit of good fortune, McGuire didn’t have to spend much more time on the cancer floor because the organization found him a donor less than a year after his initial diagnosis. The transplant was completed successfully in May of 2012, and since then his condition has only improved.
One year into remission McGuire reached a personal milestone: his 21st birthday. But he also learned that Be The Match, the organization that had given him his life back, would soon need his help in return.
“I had heard that they were cutting $3 million from their budget,” McGuire said. “I don’t know what that means for donations, but I know that means they won’t have the advertising they once had.”
As of right now, federal funding for Be The Match is on the verge of being cut by 8.2 percent, or $3 million, due to sequestration. According to a legislative representative from the organization, those funds are necessary to test potential donors and match them to recipients. A $3 million cut could lead to 20,000 fewer donors in the registry.
Anxious to help, McGuire agreed to meet with Georgia legislators in Washington, D.C., as a representative for Be The Match and on July 17, 2013 McGuire joined other leukemia survivors from states all across the country on Capitol Hill. It was a chance to make a difference, but most importantly, it was a chance for McGuire to make sense of his disease.
“This trip was the first time I was able to meet someone with leukemia who was my own age,” said McGuire of his experience. “I met a girl from Washington state and we sat together at dinner just talking.”
As the only representative from Georgia, McGuire was able to speak with an assistant to U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., during his visit.
McGuire said he hopes other leukemia sufferers will be as lucky as he was to find a transplant and, if possible, find the same support system that he did with Be The Match.
“I’m at the stage now where I’m just going to get better and better. My legs still buckle sometimes and I still have a ways to go, but I’m getting better.”