EL PASO, Texas - In the parking lot of the National Guard armory, a Soldier carefully unfolds a letter safeguarded in his glove compartment for five months. Sitting on the edge of his passenger seat, in the late afternoon sun, he begins to read the pages once again. At first, he reads silently as if wanting to keep the special message private. Then, in little more than a whisper, he reads out loud the sentiments of a woman he has never met but whose life he would be responsible for saving. Occasionally, he looks up to explain a bit more about the woman behind the precious missive. While he reads, the front of the envelope can be seen addressed to "My Donor." One glance at the top of the first page, clearly written in very large print, is an emphatic, "Thank you."
A member of the Texas Army National Guard, Spc. Akeem Martin, a 23-year-old from Houston, says he is no hero, "I am just doing what is right." The journey to the right thing started nearly five years ago when he was an 18-year-old freshman at Central Texas College. Martin recalls, "I really didn"t think about it; we were going to lunch one day and they [Be The Match] was having a drive, giving away pizza and I signed up, they took a mouth swab and that was the last time I heard anything." Shaking his head, he continues, "then last year I got a call from Be The Match saying that I had been matched with a person with leukemia and asking would I like to donate for them."
Martin could have said no, but that is not in his character. "Because I signed up for it, just like any other commitment you make, you did the paperwork you said you were gonna do it, so…" Martin leaves the statement hanging as if the conclusion is obvious: you do what you say and say what you do; no more discussion needed. This attitude serves him well in both his military and civilian careers.
Martin has been a firefighter for two years with the South Montgomery County Fire Department. In the Texas Army National Guard, he is a chaplain"s assistant deployed to the Southwest border for Joint Task Force Guardian Support with El Paso-based, 3rd Battalion, 133rd Field Artillery Regiment. As the chaplain"s assistant he gets many opportunities to counsel service members and help on an emotional level.
"These Guardsmen have lives going on back home, and life happens every day. I am just glad I can help," Martin says.
Just before deploying, Martin received the letter. "I keep the letter in my car, it was really touching. I guess I was waiting to meet her," he says. "I got the letter and then I came on mission a couple of weeks later. I didn"t get a chance to write her back."
When LaShonda Goines, a cancer nurse from Houston, wrote that letter four months after being diagnosed with two different forms of cancer, she knew for certain only two things; there was a perfect 10-out-of-10 match, and without a doubt, everything was going to be okay. "I never asked for the odds of survival, I would not accept them anyways. I just knew that God was going to bring me out of this. I knew I was going to beat it," said Goines.
In her letter to Martin, Goines wrote, "I rejoice in the fact that God did not break the mold after he made me because he knew you were needed to help with repairs to my body. He created you to be a perfect match to repair my malfunctions. In this journey I have learned to appreciate life, I want to take trips and do things once my body is strong enough. I am a very religious person. Your cells are going to a good and generous person."
After reading the letter once again, Martin points to his heart and with an awkward giggle says, "this letter really hits you in the feels," while he takes a little extra time refolding the letter. Goines conveys a similar sentiment when she learns Martin has kept the letter all these months. She responds with a voice full of emotion. "That"s got me in tears. Yes, I am surprised. I know my son would be like, "I don"t know where that letter is." I did not know that letter was that precious to him."
Goines closed the letter with a hope and a prayer, "I want to meet you one day. Hug you one day, whenever we can, if you like. Be blessed my friend, my life-sharing brother." Little did she know all that she dreamed would come to fruition, in less than a year.
The good news came over the phone just 30 days after receiving Martin"s stem cells. "I am cancer free. Hearing those words was awesome. I mean I ran through the church. I gave my testimony. It was something, absolutely unbelievable, especially being a cancer nurse. Listening to the other patients in the holding area waiting to be seen, you hear their stories, how some of them had tried transplant and it didn"t work for them and this is maybe their second go around. But for me, this was a one-shot deal and now, I am cancer free," Goines" smile can be heard through the phone.
Martin and Goines were invited to meet for the first time in Minnesota at the annual Be The Match council meeting. Their first time meeting each other would be onstage in front of more than 2,000 people.
"I can"t even describe how amazing that moment was, it was so precious," says Martin. He attempts to describe the event, seemingly at a loss for words, shrugging his shoulders and says, "I was really anxious and super excited. I was just really happy to get to that point. Just seeing her and being able to say that we got to that point because she made it, she was a fighter, it was something really special."
Goines was anxious to finally meet the young man who saved her life. "The event was awesome. They had us separated through the entire meeting until Saturday night, even when they played the video of both of us. They called me to the stage first, and they would not tell me where he was in the room. And so, to see him walk up to the stage with his mother, he just has this heroic walk. It was awesome. He"s an amazing fellow."
When asked if they attributed the success of the transplant endeavor to just science or God, they had similar, but not identical, responses. Both have careers in the medical field and strong religious beliefs. Martin holds out his hands as if making a scale for demonstration, "I have my religious background and I work in the medical field too. I feel like there is science and there is God, and they both work together."
Goines praises God"s intervention, "God, this was nothing but divine intervention, divine intervention from God. Sitting in the room for 30 days doing my transplant I was crying out to God and this just shows me that God had his ear inclined to my cries." Continuing, she describes how special and lucky she felt, "I felt like I touched the hem of God"s garment and I was made whole again."
Few people can say they saved a life, but for Martin, saving lives is a reality as a firefighter and now as a stem cell donor. He says there is a uniquely strong bond between him and Goines, compared to other lives he has saved as a fireman. "I guess because we have such a bond now, when I met her it was like I"d known her my whole life, it was really weird. I met her sons as well and it was like we"ve been brothers forever. It was really something amazing."
The special bond forged between the two gives each a bigger family. Without hesitation or searching for the words she would say to Spc. Akeem Martin, Goines exclaimed, "I got a new son out of this process. I want to tell him I love him and he"s an awesome human being and he needs to keep doing what he"s doing because God has bigger and better plans for him."
The effects of this profound, life-changing match are clear, nearly 800 miles away, across the state of Texas, with one look at Martin"s cubicle inside the armory. The cubicle appears to be much like anyone"s cubicle. There are pictures of his family and another one of his fire truck, along with a cross and some obligatory notices and guidelines. There are two items quite unique and conspicuous amid the varying drab tones of tan, hanging proudly both inside and outside his partitions: two capes, one green the other blue, both emblazoned with the "Be The Match" logo. Martin explains everyone gets the blue cape, but the green one is special for those donor-recipient matches that ended in saving a life.
Martin believes to care for others you have to take yourself out of the equation. "When it comes down to saving a life, you should not think about yourself, there"s gonna be pain, you know everything good comes with a little pain. That little bit of pain goes a long way because there is someone whose life is really counted on you. Putting in a little work and a little pain will go a long way," he says.
Goines went from a double cancer diagnosis to being cancer free in seven months because Martin decided to be a difference and saw it through. She says, "Sign up for Be The Match. It doesn"t matter if you are black, white, Hispanic, just sign up."
Martin says his firsthand experience doesn"t make him a hero but did make him want to share his story. "It is really important to educate people on the "Be the Match" program or any marrow donor program because it does save lives. It does make a difference," he says.
Be The Match is a nonprofit international organization that matches stem cell and bone marrow donors with recipients inflicted with certain cancers. The matches are based, partly, on ethnicity, and more often than not the match will come from outside one"s family. To find out more visit bethematch.org.