“She saved my life,” Earl Young said. “There’s no other way to describe it. Obviously I would have died if she had not become a match.”
Earl Young isn’t your typical 79-year old. He’s accomplished a lot over his lifetime. You would think winning a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics would be his biggest accomplishment. But an even bigger challenge awaited him in 2012.
“Eight years ago, I had a sniffle and a cough,” Young said. “I couldn’t shake it off, and I went to see my doctor. By about three o’clock in the afternoon, he was telling me I had three months to live.”
Young was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) at the age 72. It’s a type of cancer in which myeloid cells interfere with the production of normal white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets.
“They checked me in to Medical City Dallas Hospital and started chemo,” Young said. “What I didn’t know back then was only four out of ten people diagnosed with a blood cancer find a match for a bone marrow transplant.”
Two weeks before being diagnosed, Christine Waag, a 52-year old from Offenburg, Germany was the only person to match with Young out of 22 million people on file.
“Each person may have only one genetic twin in the world,” Waag said. “It was the right thing to do.”
While going through chemotherapy, Young was given a second chance at life. On Jan. 21, 2012, Young underwent a bone marrow transplant thanks to Waag.
Despite being given the transplant, the recovery was still a daunting task.
“The recovery is an absolute slice of hell,” Young said. “A lot of people don’t make it through the recovery and at my age, it was rare for someone like me to have a bone marrow transplant.”
In the United States, donors and recipients have to wait one year to contact each other; in Germany, it’s a two-year wait. Once the restriction lifted, Waag and Young both wanted to meet. They became fast friends.
After beating cancer, Young wanted to help others the way Waag did.
“When I got back on my feet, I began to think about what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” Young said. “I thought I could go back to Abilene Christian and start bone marrow drives.”
He started a foundation called Earl Young’s Team in 2015 that focuses on awareness of blood cancer and letting people know what a bone marrow drive is.
He wants to make a big statement to bring awareness to the cause. His statement happens to be jumping out of an airplane from nearly 14,000 feet.
“Having never jumped from a perfectly good airplane, I never planned to,” Young said. “But I started thinking that maybe that would be a way to draw attention and increase awareness. So, I told my genetic twin if she wanted to jump with me and she said yes.”
Young and Waag will jump from an airplane during ACU’s West Kittley track Invitational on March 21.
“It’ll be fun to jump with her,” Young said. “The one screaming will be me, by the way. You don’t want to miss it because I’m not going to do it a second time.”
Over the past five years, Earl Young’s Team has held over 150 drives, swabbed over 16,000 people and saved 47 lives.
One of those lives saved was because of a former undergraduate at ACU. Madison Losher, a 2018 graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology, matched with a child in need of a bone marrow transplant.
“Naturally, I was nervous,” Losher said. “However, I think I was just so surprised that I was a match that it distracted me from being overly nervous. Anytime I thought about it, I had a huge peace about what I was doing.”
Her surgery took place in September of 2018. Losher stayed in bed for two days to rest following the operation but was back in her normal routine.
She had the chance to meet Young and believes in him and the foundation.
“I have never met someone who is as passionate and goal-oriented towards one thing,” Losher said. “Earl has made it his life’s mission to bring awareness to bone marrow transplants. He is a selfless human being.”
Losher, in fact, is still enrolled at ACU and its Occupational Therapy Masters program. She will graduate later this spring.
She also encouraged everyone to join Young’s mission, to save lives. You can learn more by visiting EarlYoungsTeam.com.
“I would highly recommend that every person be on the registry,” Losher said. “You have the opportunity to save a life. I truly believe that the Lord will bring this into your life if he knows that you are mentally and physically ready for it. So have faith that it is all in his timing.”