DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- ABC11 met Liz McEntee on a chilly, rainy Sunday. but her commitment to help others through Be The Match provided warmth and inspiration to the entire crew.
She is a 24 year old nursing student in the final semester at Watts School of Nursing in Durham; she's simultaneously working as a nursing assistant. When she was 17 she wanted to join the Be the Match registry after learning about her next door neighbor's cancer battle.
"I had a neighbor who had leukemia, and he was searching for a donor," she said. "He needed a stem cell transplant. He was very sick and was struggling to find one."
That neighbor, retired judge Carl Fox, benefitted from a 2015 bone marrow transplant donor drive that helped him find not one, but two matches that restored his health. Too young to donate to his drive, when McEntee turned 21 she ordered a swab testing kit in the mail.
A few years later and much to her surprise, she got a call from Be The Match.
"I received a call from a Minnesota number, and I know nobody in Minnesota. So, I thought it was spam, and I ignored it," she said.
She was still skeptical when, about a minute later, a text message appeared on her phone that said: "Hi Liz! This is Abby with Be The Match, the national bone marrow registry. You have matched to a patient. Please call me back ASAP."
"In fact my first thought, and I laugh at this now was, 'They're going to ask me to put down a deposit and I'm never going to hear from these people again.'" she said. "That's how unlikely this seemed!"
Finally, after reading a confirmation email from Be The Match and speaking with a representative, she prepared for her donation day.
"It took us all a day or two to come to terms with the fact it was really happening. We were trying to gather as much information as possible. My mom immediately agreed to travel with me to donate," she said. "Once we knew it was happening, we were all so excited. It was never a question of if I was going to donate. It was always yes."
Liz was not nervous about the donation process. She had been working with patients, administering needles, drawing blood and seeing procedures during her time spent at nursing school. The first person she remembers telling outside her family was her lead professor, via email. They were extremely supportive and offered to let her miss class if needed. Her employer at the time was also willing to push back her start date to make the donation possible.
She learned later that her recipient match was about the same age as her grandparents, another factor in her decision to donate.
"If one of my grandparents had leukemia, I would be begging everybody I knew to join the registry. And if I can give somebody the opportunity to grow up with all of the grandparents or one more, then I'm going to do that," said McEntee.
Liz's mom went with her to a hospital in Washington DC on donation day, where she said the process went smoothly.
"Physically, I was a little bit sore," for the first 38 hours, she said. "I would say on a scale of zero to 10, the worst pain I had was about a 2 or a 3. It really was not bad."
She was back in class 24 hours post-transplant. As she recovered she said she felt completely fine and had no problems or complications. But she had questions.
"I had no way of knowing if the recipient was alive in the time since I donated. That was the hardest part was not knowing if the transplant worked and if she was OK," she said.
Then the recipient sent an online message to McEntee.
"I was at work, finishing up my workday and I checked my email. And it just said, 'Be the Match letter, from.' And I immediately realized that it was from my recipient. And that was the first, kind of sign of life that I had from her." said McEntee. "Her email said 'thank you for donating and giving me a second chance. My husband and kids are also so grateful.' She is progressing well. And she's a wife and a mom and got to spend the holidays with her family. It was kind of embarrassing; I was in the middle of a bunch of coworkers, and I just started crying! I was so excited and relieved to know that she's doing OK."
Since that day, McEntee responded online.
"It was the biggest relief getting her letter. I heard from her 7 weeks after donating PBSC. It was the best update I could have asked for. It was tough not knowing. I thanked her for writing to me. I had already been formulating an email to her but didn't know what to say."
She hopes to meet her recipient someday. Right now, she's encouraging others to become donors, especially those who. like her, are part of the younger, more diverse pool of donors Be The Match seeks. There's currently a shortage of donors who are not white as more members of minority communities battle cancer.
McEntee said registering will change your life as well as the person who benefits from your gift of life.
"When you hear from your recipient and you recognize the impact that you have, it's a relief and you will never look back. You'll never, ever regret it at all," she said. "My mom told me getting selected to donate was like finding a needle in a haystack, and we need more needles."
You can learn more about Be The Match and sign up here.