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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved. 


February 8, 2019  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Local Jewish man beats odds to save life of New York Latino

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press

Julio Rivera, left hugs stem cell donor Ryan Corning. Julio Rivera, left hugs stem cell donor Ryan Corning. It might take a mathematician days to compute the odds, but suffice it to say, when Ryan Corning, 23, of Land O’ Lakes got his cheek swabbed in 2014 at a Jewish summer camp, he never dreamed he would actually wind up saving the life of a Hispanic, Christian man from New York.

Corning, now a student at Elon University in North Carolina, said he was undergoing orientation to be a counselor at Camp Coleman in Georgia when representatives from the Gift of Life bone marrow and stem cell registry, based in Boca Raton, made a stop there. They invited those at the camp to get swabbed and become part of the registry.

“It was simple and took very little time,” Corning recalled, saying he did the swab and then pretty much forgot about it until years later, never really expecting to be a match for anyone.

For those with blood cancer diseases such as leukemia, bone marrow or stem cell donations are often the only way to save their lives. The Gift of Life registry was created when a Jewish men, Jay Feinberg, was diagnosed with leukemia in the early 1990s. Because he was Jewish and few Jews were part of any registry, Feinberg’s chances of finding a match were slim. He and friends began campaigns to register more Jews. After four years of registry drives, no match was found and Feinberg was getting sicker. Then on the last registry drive, the very last one to get swabbed turned out to be a match and Feinberg’s life was saved.

Leukemia survivor Julio Rivera, in dark shirt, said he could not stop hugging Ryan Corning. Leukemia survivor Julio Rivera, in dark shirt, said he could not stop hugging Ryan Corning. That is how Gift of Life got started and became part of a worldwide system of registries that are checked when a patient needs a match. Usually those of a particular ethnic or racial background are more likely to be a match for others of the same ethnic or racial group. Sadly, Latinos, African Americans, Jews and some other ethnic groups are under-represented among those registered worldwide.

It is thumbs up for Ryan Corning after donating stem cells for the Gift of Life program at a hospital in New Jersey in 2016. It is thumbs up for Ryan Corning after donating stem cells for the Gift of Life program at a hospital in New Jersey in 2016. While it seemed more likely that if Corning was a match for anyone, it would be another Jew, it turns out he was a near-perfect match for Julio Rivera, a 50-year-old truck driver, battling leukemia. The odds of being such a match are staggering, and perhaps that is why it made it all that much sweeter when the two men met last month for the first time at a Gift of Life Steps for Life 5k Run & Walk in Boca Raton.

Rivera said he just could not stop hugging Corning when they were introduced at the event. “Well I think I told him a million times I am grateful and humbled and I love him dearly. Because of our age difference I felt like I gained a brother and a son.”

The bond was mutual for Corning, who brought his parents, Jim and Sue Ellen, and younger brother Jonny with him to Boca Raton. He said he and Rivera talked up a storm and hung out for 7-8 hours that day, including the ceremony and a lunch that his family shared with Rivera.

“We had a really good time, just chatting and sharing. That really sealed that bond, that connection,” Corning said, adding that since then they have stayed in contact.

Corning said it felt like he was doing a good thing to get on the registry, but really did not think much about the impact of that at the time.

Riviera knew the odds of finding a match were slim when doctors told him on Nov. 13, 2015, he had leukemia. It began with a routine dental exam when his dentist said he spotted something in his mouth and urged Rivera to go to a doctor immediately. Rivera went to the hospital the same day. By early the next morning, the doctor came to his room. “He said to me eye-to-eye, ‘You have leukemia.’ I had no words. My ex-wife and brother started sobbing. I went blank and the doctor stood there waiting for me to say something. He wished me the best of luck.”

Surprisingly, within a few months the doctors told Rivera they had found a match that was more than 99 percent perfect. Still, Rivera had to go through radiation and chemo treatments to ready his body for new stem cells. Then, on June 8, 2016, he received Corning’s stem cells, a process seen as the only way to save his life, yet no guarantee that the immune deficient Rivera would survive. “I put my faith in God’s hands,” he said.

Corning said he had just returned from a study-abroad trip to Vietnam and was at a friend’s place in New York in January 2016, planning to return to school. He got a late evening call and because he was jet-lagged he almost did not answer. He did, however, and learned he was a match, though at the time the protocol was for him to not know the recipient.

As Rivera underwent treatments to prepare him, Corning received a series of injections to stimulate growth of blood platelets that contain his stem cells. It was decided that donating stem cells instead of bone marrow would work best for Rivera.

Finally, in June 2016, Rivera was ready to receive the blood platelets with the healthy stem cells.

Corning was flown to a hospital in New Jersey where he was hooked up to a tube that took his blood, extracted platelets, then returned his blood to his other arm. Because his body was making extra platelets, the blood returned to his body had enough platelets to keep him healthy. The normally 5-hour process took 8 hours, Corning said, but Gift of Life folks were there to keep him comfortable. He spent most of the day sitting in a chair and watching Netflix. Then he was flown home.

Rivera received the transfusion within hours at a New York hospital. But it was not a miracle cure. Rivera’s body reacted badly to the new blood. He went through catastrophic fevers, lost weight and muscle mass.

Describing this as a low point physically and emotionally, he said, “I am not like a religious person but I believe in God, an entity with incredible power and gives us hope for life. … It was basically his [Corning’s] blood was invading my body, killing all my blood cells that had cancer, so his blood needed to take control of my marrow. My body did not want it but the blood was doing its job.”

It took about a year before doctors felt he was out of the woods, and to this day Rivera still often wears a mask to help protect his immune system. He also has never returned to truck driving,

In spite of some limitations, he is happy with the new life made possible by a special gift from a stranger.

It has given him an opportunity to reconnect with both an estranged daughter and his former wife.

“I have a nice family and am blessed that they are all great kids,” he said of his five children and three step-children. As for his estranged wife, Rivera said, the ordeal brought them back together. “We began a next chapter,” he said.

Corning said he would gladly donate again if he were a match for someone else. He has persuaded all his family to sign up on the registry and encourages everyone else to do it too. It’s simple: people can go to and request to be a donor. They will be sent a swab kit with instructions. Send it back and forget about it … until one day you get that call to save a life.

“I definitely credit my upbringing and faith. My mom is Jewish and my dad is Christian. I was raised Jewish (attending Congregation Beth Am in Tampa) with a good set of core values instilled by my parents and believe that contributed to my decision to join the registry.”

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