THERE ARE certain dates that Sigitas Sleckus will never forget. One is Feb. 10, 2011. That's when doctors gave him the news nobody wants to hear.
Sleckus, who lives in suburban Chicago and goes by Iggy, was told that he had a "very aggressive" form of leukemia. He was 29 years old. His wife Mante was 8 months pregnant with their first child. They both came to this country from Lithuania - Sleckus had arrived a decade earlier - but they didn't meet until they were over here.
"When you're thinking it might be the last days of your life, it's not that you're scared to die," Sleckus remembered. "You're scared what's going to happen to your loved ones. You have to think about what they're going to do once you're gone.
"They said if I hadn't been diagnosed at that time I would never have lived until my 30th birthday."
On Saturday night he'll celebrate No. 33, with Mante and their son Ignas, at Villanova's Connelly Center, where Wildcats football coach Andy Talley is holding his annual Mardi Gras Bash to support his Bone Marrow Foundation. In the past 22 years, the foundation has done some incredible work to raise awareness and save lives.
They'll get to share the moment with Jared Bonacquisti, a senior fullback on the West Chester team that made it to the Division II national semifinals 3 months ago. Much more important, he's the person who donated the marrow that kept Sleckus alive, through Talley's initiative.
The two never have met before, or even talked on the phone. Their only communication has been through email, after the mandatory 1-year waiting period from the time Sleckus received the marrow transplant on July 12, 2011.
"That's now my second birthday," said Sleckus, an electrical mechanic. "So we celebrate twice a year. I know I'm very lucky, especially because Jared stepped up. [The donor program] was completely new to me. I had no clue that donors had to be living. That's not what I thought. I thought it's going to be from somebody who's dead.
"I know there were some more [potential] donors. I think they didn't respond, or whatever, to the communications they had. So Jared was the one who responded right away. And he was a perfect match for me. The doctors were amazed by the great amount of stem cells they got from him. They said it's unusual. They were saying he must be in good shape, very healthy. That explains a lot . . .
"I had a doctor who's kind of a jokester. He said for each day that the cancer does not come back, I should put away one dollar. Then, after 1 year I should go to the bar and spend it all, because most likely it's not going to come back."
And that, of course, is the only news that matters.
What started as a Villanova thing has grown into an effort involving 52 schools, 40 of which have had one of their registrants become a donor. Many, including West Chester, have had more. The mission is to add young, healthy donors to the National "Be The Match" Registry. Funding remains one of the biggest hurdles. Last year Talley raised $25,000 for the cause.
Tickets for the Bash (no jackets or ties required) are $100, which includes a three-course buffet dinner, open wine and beer bar, dancing, casino games, live and silent auctions and more. For more info, go to talleybonemarrow.org or call 610-401-7665. It'll be money well spent.
Bonacquisti registered when he was a freshman, with the rest of his new teammates.
"When you first sign up, the last thing on your mind is becoming a donor," said Bonacquisti, who went to Garnet Valley High and wants to become a physical therapist. "Being part of a team, that's why we all did it. I didn't learn about the program until I got to West Chester and heard coach [Bill] Zwaan talk about it. Then we'd go around campus and find other kids. They tell you how crazy [the odds are], a one-in-whatever chance. So I'm thinking there's no way I'll get called. You think that's going to be the end of it.
"I had a teammate, Dominick Dovidio, get called right before I did. And a girls' lacrosse player, Tori Dugan, she donated a year after me. The process isn't painful at all. They take your blood and run it through a machine to harvest the stem cells. I know I didn't hesitate. It weighs on your mind. You want it to work so badly. But you know going in that not every story's going to have that kind of ending."
Each year, more than 12,000 patients in the United States alone are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases for which a blood transplant from an unrelated donor may be the best or only hope for a cure. About 70 percent in need of a transplant do not have a matching donor in their family. Minority patients are even more at risk, since Caucasians account for roughly two-thirds of the registry.
"This was all new for me," said Bonacquisti. "I'd never had any friends or someone from my family go through it. As time passed, they would update you on how [Sleckus] was doing. But it was small things. I actually wanted to find out. I thought it would be interesting, to see who I'm helping out.
"The first time he emailed me, it had 'THANK YOU' in all capital letters with a bunch of exclamation points. He wanted to know about me. It's extremely emotional. It's actually overwhelming at first. You helped keep somebody's family together. Whatever you have to go through to make that happen, it's nothing compared to what they're going through. You're just doing a little bit.
"He sent a picture of him and his son. It's just incredible to see that. He said, 'This is me, hanging out with my son, because of you.' That's a great feeling. I can't think of any words that can describe what I'm going to be feeling when we finally meet. The hug might last a while. It's going to be a moment for everybody. Not just me and him but the Foundation, and what they're trying to accomplish."
Two people from different worlds, with the only common demominator being the makeup of their red blood cells. Now they'll be forever linked, in a way that few can ever comprehend. So who knows which two could produce the next miracle?
"If I would have been in my [former] country, I don't know if this would have happpend," Sleckus said. "He donated his marrow without knowing where it was going to go. It takes a big man to do that. He could have missed some important games, or something. He wasn't thinking about himself. He was trying to save a little kid, somebody's father, somebody's wife. My wife has signed up to be a donor. The program needs as many people as possible. It's that important. Because you really never do know.
"I'm looking at my son. He's our bundle of joy. He's 3 years old, so he's all over the place, doing things he's not supposed to. It's good to see everything. The good things, the bad things. I'm enjoying every part of it . . .
"We're so excited. I can't wait to meet him, and coach Talley. I don't know about the cake. I haven't even thought about that. Maybe we can all blow out the candles together."