Evan Braggs and his wife, Natalia Melina
As Evan Braggs played basketball one day in the summer of 2004, he ran out of breath and fell to the ground.
“I had to lie down for like 15 minutes,” he recalled. The next morning, his father took him to a local hospital, where medical staff tested his blood twice because they wanted to make sure the diagnosis was correct.
Braggs’ hemoglobin levels were so low that he was immediately admitted to the intensive care unit and given a blood transfusion.
“One of the nurses mentioned to me I was about two weeks away from having a heart attack,” he added.
The diagnosis shocked Braggs, who is now 32 and lives in Rancho Cucamonga. He had never had as much as a broken bone, and at the time, he ran hurdles for the Mt. San Antonio College track team. He also played basketball and worked out every day.
“Looking at me, you would not have known how sick I was,” he added.
At City of Hope, Ryotaro Nakamura, M.D.
, associate professor of hematology and hematopoietic cell transplantation, treated Braggs with two serums in an attempt to boost his bone marrow production. He also received blood transfusions every few weeks. But in order to cure the anemia, he would need a bone marrow transplant.
Braggs was determined not to let his treatment affect his education, and he worked closely with Nakamura to schedule his transplant during summer break. He spent that summer in the hospital as he recovered from the transplant.
Those weeks at City of Hope helped Braggs come to value his young life, as well as appreciate the multitude of people who helped him regain his health.
He never thought he could pay any of that kindness forward, but the opportunity came several years later.
Braggs had just met a young woman, Natalia Melina, when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in January 2014.
The 32-year-old woman recalls she told Braggs about her diagnosis, and that he didn’t have to be involved since he had been through his own treatment before. Braggs said he wouldn’t have it any other way, and recommended she receive treatment at City of Hope, which she did. The two eventually started dating, and when she received chemotherapy and lost her hair, Braggs shaved his head, too.
“I was able to speak about all the things you go through with treatment – losing your hair, chemo-sickness, fatigue, things of that nature – and help put her at ease and get her to the next part of treatment,” he added.
The couple married in 2015.
“We reflect now and think that we’ve already experienced those difficult moments most people can only talk about in their vows,” Braggs said. “In sickness or in health. For better or for worse. We went through the worst and stayed together through all of it.”
And none of that would have been possible without the kindness of a stranger. At City of Hope’s Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion today, Braggs met his donor – Mike Cook, 49, of Woodbridge, Virginia, a retired U.S. Marine Corps sergeant. He thanked him in person for taking time out of his life to donate bone marrow.
“I’m very thankful that his gentleman took the time out of his life to do something like that … and also thankful for so many people that were involved in the process of getting me along, from my parents to Dr. Nakamura to the nurses to the nurse practitioners,” Braggs said.
Mike Cook was stationed at Quantico, the Marine Corps Base in Virginia, in the early 2000s when he attended a blood drive.
Mike Cook, bone marrow donor
A volunteer for bone marrow donation asked if he would join a registry for bone marrow. Cook didn’t hesitate.
“I thought about my nephew, who was sick at one time. He had a brain tumor when he was 18 months old,” said Cook, 49. “He was helped, and I thought, ‘If I can do anything to help someone, I will do it.’”
Like many people who join the registry, Cook didn’t think about donating again until he received a call in 2005, letting him know that a patient matched his bone marrow.
He recalls visiting a hospital in Washington, D.C., to make the donation. There was a long line of people waiting for various procedures. Cook checked into the hospital, and told the receptionist he would sit down and wait.
“No, you’re a special case,” the receptionist told him and waved him right into the donation area. “It made me feel like what I was doing was truly special.”
Earlier today, hundreds of other people – strangers for the most part – made Cook feel special. In an emotional reunion, Cook meet the patient whose life he helped save – Evan Braggs, 32, of Rancho Cucamonga – at City of Hope’s Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion.
“I was ecstatic to know that this person actually wanted to meet,” said Cook, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for nearly 21 years, seeing combat in Bahrain and then in Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Today, he is a reverend in charge of the men’s ministry at Shiloh New Site Baptist Church in Stafford, Virginia.