Stem cell donor Janisha Paul (above, left) and her transplant recipient Theresa Miller will always remember August 22, 2023 – that is the day when the lifesaver and the cancer survivor met in person for the first time.
The meeting was arranged in partnership with the Miami Beach Police Department (MBPD) at their headquarters. The MBPD is a long-term supporter of Gift of Life, and both the department and the City of Miami Beach hold events for the organization every year.
The two women, who now share such a deep connection, were introduced by incoming Police Chief Wayne A. Jones, who was preparing to begin his new role on September 1.
“To have a hand in this and see someone face-to-face and know you helped them live another day is incredible,” said Janisha.
“I have been waiting for this day to come,” said Theresa. “I’m so thankful and grateful to you for what you did for me.”
Theresa had received shocking news from her doctor in March 2021: her recent weight loss was not from her regular gym workouts, but was being caused by acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a life-threatening blood cancer. It was already a difficult time in their lives due to the loss of a family member, followed only months later by the emergence of the COVID pandemic. Then the unexpected diagnosis of blood cancer. But a ray of hope existed: there is a chance to cure AML if a matching donor can be found for a blood stem cell or marrow transplant.
As Theresa’s brother and daughter were found to be half-matches, doctors said she would need to search for a fully matching, unrelated donor. But, for those of African ancestry, finding a match can be difficult – even impossible – due to the lack of donors of African heritage in the registry. Only 29% of African Americans find a matching donor.
“I felt hopeful knowing that an unrelated donor would be the best match for me, but it was still a lot to process,” said Theresa. “When they told me a donor had been found, I was speechless, overjoyed! Honestly, because the number of African American donors listed in the registry is so low, I thought it was more of a very slim chance to none that a donor would be found for me. The doctor said my donor’s numbers were almost identical to mine, so that gave me a lot of relief.”
That donor was Janisha, a registered nurse who joined Gift of Life in 2013 while she was a student at the University of Florida.
“I never thought in a million years I would be someone’s match,” said Janisha. “I did not initially think I was directly contributing to saving a person’s life. I said if God wanted me to donate, he would make me a match.”
After a quick test to confirm the compatibility, Janisha was indeed the best match for Theresa and donated blood stem cells at Gift of Life’s Adelson Collection Center in June 2021.
“I work in research as a nurse and in the medical field I think a lot of our Black community is underrepresented – even in the marrow registry,” said Janisha. “If people never come forward and join the registry, our community will always be underrepresented – we’ll forever have people who can never get a cure. The process is too easy to not complete it. We each save lives everyday simply by driving safely and those things, but to really see someone face-to-face – like I’m seeing Theresa right now – and know that you helped them stay with their family, that outcome is beautiful.”
Thank you to Chief Jones and the Miami Beach Police Department for your ongoing support and involvement with Gift of Life.
Janisha, 29, is a wife, mother, and registered nurse living in Auburndale, Fla. With a baby boy at home, her time is filled with caring for her family.
Theresa, 68, a resident of Powder Springs, Ga., is married and has an adult daughter. As a retiree, she enjoys gardening, spending time with her grandchildren, and is very active with different ministries in her church.