Reporter's notebook: ABC News reporter meets bone marrow recipient 1 year after lifesaving donation

ABC News' Armando Garcia writes about his bone marrow donation.

January 19, 2023, 1:45 PM

In October, an administrative specialist from Be The Match, the nonprofit National Marrow Donor Program, informed me that my bone marrow transplant recipient wanted to connect with me. It had been more than a year since I embarked on the most fulfilling journey of my life: donating bone marrow to someone who was at the time a complete stranger.

I learned that in September 2021, while I was in the hospital bed recovering from my donation, Joseph Burr was at a hospital hundreds of miles away about to receive my stem cells. When I woke up from that procedure, I took a selfie video and gave a thumbs up to the camera saying I was proud to have donated. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Joe had a photo of himself taken as he was receiving my stem cells. He too flashed a thumbs up and a big grin.

"September 23rd will forever be known as a rebirth day for me," he wrote in an Instagram post a year after the procedure. "This was me one year ago undergoing a bone marrow transplant after I relapsed with leukemia. The bone marrow transplant was long process full of hardships but thankfully it was successful and a year later I am once again cancer free."

Learning that my donation helped Joe beat cancer floored me. Meeting him for the first time on "Good Morning America" Thursday made my heart full.

"Thank you for giving me a second chance at life," Joe told me on the show, adding that last year was one of the best years of his life. "I finally got to go and live at Michigan State [University] and attend classes there. I went to my first ever concerts, I got to travel around the country with my mom."

Lee Ann, Joe's mom, said thank you for "saving my son's life."

"It so warms my heart that people are out there that just go above and beyond and helps total strangers. I feel like Joe has a brother for life," she said.

When I was first called upon to donate I was incredibly nervous, but as a journalist I felt compelled to use the opportunity to report about how Hispanics like myself are underrepresented in bone marrow donor registries. Although a donor can be matched with anyone from any race, ethnicity often plays a crucial role in determining donor compatibility. So it was no surprise to me when I learned that Joe was originally from Guatemala.

Joe was adopted as a baby by his wonderful mother Lee Ann. She says the fact I matched with her son is a "one in 1 million" chance.

In another Instagram post, Joe explained he had undergone several radiation treatments, but was preparing for full body radiation in advance of his bone marrow transplant.

"The donor is from the donor registry and is a 12/12 match which is rare for someone like me, adopted from Guatemala w no known family members," he wrote.

He's right. It can be difficult for some people to find the right match when it comes to bone marrow transplants. For a previous story on ABC News Live Prime with Linsey Davis, I met Alfredo, a 5th grader who suffers from rare genetic disorder called IL-10 receptor deficient. He has one of only 100 known cases in the United States. His illness causes severe inflammation in his gut and prevents him from absorbing the nutrients he needs. At this moment he weighs 60 pounds, his mother told me, and to this day, Alfredo is still searching for his life-saving match.

I admit that it's quite strange to be thanked for donating to Joe. I see it as a natural thing to do, something I did because I believe that it's human inclination to help another out.

On any given day we may open doors for someone entering a store or an office building -- people do it not because they expect a thank you, but because it's the right thing to do, it's human courtesy. I'm so honored to get to open the door for Joe and be a small part of his journey.

By donating, I've gained perspective on how each person can be another person's cure. Most importantly I've gained a lifelong friend. Joe and I are forever linked by this experience, and for that I'll always be grateful.

"I don't think it should be a one in a million chance to get a donor, there should be a million donors for every Joe and every Alfredo out there," I told "GMA" hosts Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan on Thursday.

I'm committed to doing everything I can to make that happen.

To help continue to raise awareness of the bone marrow registry, "GMA" is partnering with Be The Match in our "One Match, Second Chance" series from Sept. 20 through Feb. 20 to continue to raise awareness and to help save lives. Learn how to take the first step to sign up to become a donor today.