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'It's a gift': Johnson County blood stem cell recipient, donor encourage others to get on donor registry

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Posted at 6:11 PM, Jul 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-22 12:04:58-04

OLATHE, Kan. — A blood stem cell recipient and donor from Johnson County are sharing their stories in hopes to encourage others to get on the donor registry.

According to an international nonprofit, DKMS, 70% of people with blood-related illnesses must rely on donors outside of their family.

Dr. Nevin Waters has been a dentist at in Olathe, Kansas, since 1975.

He was happily married with kids and a grandson, when in December of 2003, he came face to face with Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia — a cancer of the blood.

“It’s been 17 years, you think that you’d be used to it by now, but I’m still… maybe I still just don’t believe or can’t believe it happened," Waters said. "Every time I think or talk about it, it’s reliving."

He was told by his doctor that a blood stem cell transplant would be his best chance of survival.

Waters delayed his transplant until his youngest daughter’s college graduation and received the gift of second chance on June 16, 2004.

“[A] 40-year-old man from Norway made the sacrifice to donate for me,” Waters said. “It makes you appreciate everyday, it’s a gift.”

Waters now uses his profession for ministry, helping those who are currently walking with cancer.

“I get to see now here in my office, unfortunately, patients who are going to undergo radiation treatment," Waters said. "And so they send them here to me to decide and determine which teeth have to be removed before the radiation."

Waters explained more of how the process with patients goes.

“Radiation affects the body’s ability to heal, so any tooth that is questionable unfortunately has to go, and I get to sit down and tell people that," Waters said. "It’s something I think I do with empathy, because I’ve been through what they are going to go through.”

Inspired by Waters’ story, his longtime patients Elizabeth and Chris Leonard joined the DKMS donor list in hopes to help him.

While they were not a match for Waters, 10-years later, both siblings got the call to be a potential match for a woman in her 60s.

“I became the perfect match for this stranger and he was the back up," Elizabeth Leonard said. "So because of the sibling rivalry we had, it just kind of made it a bit more fun to have that call and be the actual match."

HIPPA requires recipients and donors to not communicate for one year after the transplant.

Leonard says she hopes to meet the person she helped one day, if the mystery woman feels the same.

“To give them a second chance, or give this woman a chance to even hold her grandchild for the first time, or you know, extend her life, it means so much to me and it brightens my world, because I know that I’m giving back and doing something good,” Leonard said.

While Waters and Leonard may never get to meet their donor and recipient, they say it is their life’s mission to inspire more people through the stories and help save lives.

Waters personally continues to run drives at his practice and church to get people on the registry.

“Of those 400 people, I know six people have been chosen to donate,” he said.

If you want to learn more about becoming a potential blood stem cell donor, go on for more details.