- Associated Press - Sunday, February 9, 2014

LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) - John Ciempa and his wife, Debra, count their blessings each morning while drinking coffee together in their Lakeland home.

They have more to be thankful for than the small things in life. But it’s those little things - holding hands, reading the newspaper and walking their yellow Labrador retriever, Bella - that the Ciempas try not to forget each day, because without the help of a once-stranger, John Ciempa might not be alive to cherish them.

Ciempa was a healthy man in his early 60s until 2010, when his doctor noticed something off during a yearly physical. After a series of tests, medical appointments and a referral to the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa, Ciempa was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome - a blood cancer that required a stem cell transplant for survival.

Without a donor, Ciempa was given only a few months to live. He was matched with an unrelated man and received the transplant on May 15, 2012.

Recently, the Ciempas flew to New York City to meet his lifesaving hero face to face.

New York City firefighter Christopher Howard, 30, greeted Ciempa, 66, with a hug at the 10th annual Honor Roll of Life ceremony at the FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn. Howard was recognized, along with 13 other city firefighters, for participating in the donor program.

The Ciempas and Howard exchanged personal gifts, enjoyed a slice of New York- style pizza and toured the memorial at ground zero, where Howard’s father is remembered as one of the first responders who was killed during the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Besides getting married and giving birth to our children, that day at that ceremony in New York City…., meeting Christopher, was one of the highlights of our life that we will never forget,” Debra Ciempa said.

“Between Christopher and my doctors, they saved my life,” Ciempa said. “How do you thank someone for your life?”

After months of chemotherapy and hospital stays, Ciempa said he was coming to terms with knowing he might not live much longer.

“I made my amends to the man above, and I had a good life and you have to think positive all the time,” he said.

“Whatever’s going to happen will happen. I didn’t want to die, but I was ready for it. I wasn’t going to freak about it. I was just going to do what the doctors said, and I put my life in their hands.”

He was first matched with a middle-aged woman donor, but when that fell through, the couple’s hope started faltering. “I never knew if I was going to get that call,” Debra Ciempa said. “I wasn’t ready to be without him.”

But a few weeks later, they found out about a new donor.

At the time, they didn’t know who he was; they just knew the then-28-year-old man’s stem cells could save Ciempa’s life.

In the months following the transplant, Ciempa was the sickest he’d ever been. His body fought hard against the donated cells, and his immune system was so weak from intense chemotherapy that he came down with multiple illnesses, including one that attacked his kidneys. He is now on dialysis, awaiting the chance for a kidney transplant.

When Ciempa checked into the Moffitt Cancer Center on May 8, 2012, he weighed 156 pounds, his wife said. When he finally was able to come home in August of that year, he weighed only 118 pounds.

Now, 20 months after the transplant, Ciempa is slowly gaining weight and taking time to enjoy life.

He’s hoping one day to volunteer at Moffitt to speak with patients and give them hope. Debra Ciempa said she’s urging everyone to consider becoming donors through the BeTheMatch.org program. She’s not a candidate, but she hopes people will take the time to research the relatively painless procedure and sign up to be a donor.

She said she’s proud to be part of the miracle program that has changed the way they live each day.

“We have a different outlook on life now,” she said. “Family is everything, and every day is a gift. You don’t take it for granted. What’s important is being the best person you can be and respecting others and paying it forward.”


Information from: The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), https://www.theledger.com

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