SPRINGFIELD, NJ — For more than a year, Michelle Sion had been thinking about meeting the stem cell donor who had saved her life, but she didn’t think she’d meet him on a stage in New York City.
Sion, who has lived in Springfield for almost 30 years, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in July 2017, and began looking for a stem cell donor soon after that.
The disease is characterized by the rapid growth of abnormal cells that build up in the bone marrow and blood, and interfere with normal blood cells. Both of Sion’s children and her brother were tested as matches, but it wasn’t until her doctors began looking at a transplant registry list that they found Noah Starr, a 22-year-old from Dallas, Texas, Sion’s perfect match.
Her own brother was only a 70 percent match, which shocked them both.
“My brother and I look so much alike and we have so many similar features,” Sion said in a phone interview on Feb. 27. “It’s strange how your own sibling isn’t a perfect match but a complete stranger is.”
Sion and Starr met onstage at the Gift of Life Young Professionals Committee’s Celebrating Life event in the Edison Ballroom on Feb. 21.
“I never thought it would be in such a public forum,” Sion said of her introduction to Starr. “It was unbelievably emotional. I literally owe this guy my life.”
“This was one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever had in my life,” Starr said in a recent press release from Gift of Life. “You can’t really describe it. This is truly a unique bond we now share.”
When Starr joined the registry on a Birthright Israel trip in May 2017, he was told the chances of being a match were very low, according to the release. But Sion received her transplant in December 2017, only months after looking for a match, thanks to Starr.
“When I received the call that they had found a match, it was truly life-changing,” Sion said. “Once you get the call, it’s real and it’s happening, and it was about to happen for me.”
Before meeting Starr, Sion knew they both shared a passion for reading because she had received a letter from him. The letter had been censored by the hospital because, by law, the pair had to remain anonymous for at least a year after the transplant procedure.
“All of the personal and identifying details were blacked out,” Sion said. “It was a card with all of these black and white markings but I knew, at that point, that I would eventually meet him.”
Sion brought someone with her to the Gift of Life event to make sure she didn’t accidentally meet Starr before it was their time to go on stage.
“I found out during cocktail hour that his name was Noah and that he was 23, but that was basically it. He was Noah who liked reading,” she said, adding that she once believed he was from Europe.
The more than 30-year difference between them wasn’t shocking to Sion, she said, because registries usually look for donors in their 20s. She said some of her own friends wanted to be tested as a match, but her doctors had told her a younger donor would be best.
The pair planed to remain in contact, according to Sion, who said she will be traveling to Dallas in May for a family event and has plans to visit Starr.
“We plan on getting to know each other more. I mean, this guy saved my life,” she said. “He’s just a sweetheart.”
Sion has recently returned to work at the Jewish Community Center in Scotch Plains, where she was working full-time as assistant aquatics director before her diagnosis. But it has taken on a different, part-time role since then.
“I’m incredibly grateful to be back, to be alive and on my road to recovery,” she said.
Gift of Life is a nonprofit organization based in Boca Raton, Fla. It has facilitated more than 15,000 matches for those with a range of blood cancers, resulting in more than 3,300 bone marrow and stem cell transplants since its inception in 1991, according to the release.