With the National Lacrosse League’s first Marvel Superhero Nights set for this weekend, let’s turn our attention to one of our real-life superheroes: Alex Pace of the Philadelphia Wings.
Pace isn’t a frontline worker like a firefighter or paramedic. Rather, in 2021, he saved a man’s life by giving the man a literal part of himself: the marrow from his bones.
Bone marrow is where stem cells exist in the body. Stem cells are “the primary cells in your body,” Pace explained. “They differentiate into all the other cells you have. So if someone has liver cancer, stem cells can be used to replace their liver cells. And in my case, Tom had blood cancer.”
Tom, a father of four, only in his 50s, was suffering from leukemia, but thanks to Pace’s donation of 13 million stem cells (the norm is usually between 3-5 million), he is in remission.
“I was considered a super donor,” Pace said. “And part of that is because I’m six foot one, 200 plus pounds, so you have more to give. So the doctors were like, ‘Your recipient’s going to be happy that you’re a big strong guy.’’
While bone marrow donations are usually kept anonymous, if both the donor and the recipient sign release forms, their identities will be revealed. Pace met his new “DNA brother,” as he calls him, at the Wings’ home opener in December.
They had met via Zoom previously, and “being in Connecticut, Tom’s only a couple hours from Philly, so it worked out well. It’s definitely humbling to meet someone and they’re so gracious for the act,” Pace said. “My parents were there too, so they got to see the impact and it’s like we gained another family.”
A simple Google search will show you many college athletes who have donated, but it doesn’t appear to be something that a professional athlete has done before, although athletes would be perfect donors due to their good physical conditions.
“My teammates were all shocked when they heard about it, but they’ve been super supportive and it’s been pretty cool to educate them on the process,” Pace said. “We brought Tom out to a team event after the game, and everyone was shaking his hand and he even had a long chat with Paul Day about it, so that made him feel pretty special. And we have a special group of guys, so yeah, it was pretty cool to mix the two of them together.”
“One of the things with donation is the prime age is 17 to 35, so that’s basically all the guys in the NLL.”
NMDP is part of a worldwide donation network that includes Canadian Blood Services in Canada, that matches donors with recipients. It was through CBS that Pace was contacted in the first place.
Pace works in the medical field as a research coordinator with Newborn Screening Ontario, based out of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. He did both his undergrad – in Medical Sciences – and Master’s – in Applied Heath Sciences – at Brock University in St. Catharines. It was while he was attending Brock University in 2019 that he passed by a booth that was doing cheek swabs for a stem cell drive.
“You could get swabbed and get a slice of pizza,” he smiled. “I had the medical science background to understand how important stem cells could be, but also it was just a stroke of luck that I happened to be walking by that day and that it was on campus. So I got swabbed, entered the registry, didn’t really think anything of it. And then two years later… I got a call from Canadian Blood Services and they said, ‘You’re a potential match.’”
A 99% genetic match, in fact. It was an immediate yes, even though Pace was in the middle of his senior year and would have to miss several games with the Brock Badgers CUFLA team. It was an immediate yes, even though the procedure had to be kept secret from everyone due to medical privacy laws. Pace didn’t even initially know what country his cells would end up in.
There was lots of preparation – a physical, blood tests and injections to up Pace’s stem cell count.
The procedure was the less invasive of the two kinds of bone marrow donations. The one you see most often on TV involves a doctor drilling into your spine to remove the stem cells. But Pace was chosen for a peripheral blood stem cell donation, which is done through an IV.
“I was happy that it was the peripheral blood and not the surgical one, but I know I would’ve done it either way,” Pace said. “I knew what it meant to be able to give someone stem cells. It’s a lifesaving procedure. So I think whenever you have a chance to do something like that, you have to do it regardless.”
It was a seven-hour procedure.
“I went in about 7:00 a.m. and did the one final test to check the stem cell count. And then I was hooked up an IV in one arm, which was taking the blood out, and then it was going through a centrifuge which would separate it into the different cells they needed. And then I had another IV in the other arm putting the blood back in. So I just sat there, sitting still.”
He was back on the field with the Badgers two days later.
After the stem cells were removed, they travelled to Yale University where Tom had his transplant. As Pace describes it, Tom had a much rougher experience than Alex did.
“So basically what they do is they take you down to 0% [of your own cells] through chemo. I think you’re essentially dead, medically. He has none of his own cells, they’ve all been destroyed. Then they flushed him with my stem cells and those became his new blood cells. The science might not be perfect on that explanation, but that’s sort of how it works. And something that I found interesting was my blood type was AB positive, and whatever his blood type was before, it’s now AB positive. So it’s as if he never had that original blood type. And so now we actually have the same DNA.”
Pace said that within a week Tom was up and walking around, which is a great recovery time.
“We’re pretty close now. It’s been awesome. He texts me all the time, texts me before games, and he’s a big Wings fan now, so it’s been pretty cool. We gained a whole new family and definitely a friend for life, and he’s a great guy. He is a well-spoken guy. And he’s the type of guy that you want to be around. I saw him briefly on the weekend when our game was canceled and you can just tell he’s healthy, he looks good, he’s living his best life, so it’s pretty awesome to see.”
Pace said the Wings were set to honour Tom and have the NMDP out for a stem cell drive during their home game against Saskatchewan, which ended up being postponed, so he’s hopeful it will be rescheduled.
In the meantime, because genetic matches are so rare, Pace is leading the charge for people to get swabbed.
“I’ve heard stories of people being on the registry for 10 plus years before they end up donating. Get on the registry and just give someone a shot out there. It’s not a guarantee. You may never get called, but I think just giving someone that chance in the future, it’s that tale as old as time – good karma. So I think everyone can use a little good karma and something as simple as a mouth swab that can lead to something as impactful as curing cancer, I think it really needs to be talked about more. If you are able to give someone the gift of life, it’s really a special bond.”
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