By Debralee BestSeptember 4, 2018
JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. -- It started as a simple blood draw. It ended with a young teenager making a full recovery from leukemia. Twelve years later, the donor and recipient met face-to-face.
Staff Sgt. Richard Midkiff, Task Force Ultimate night battle noncommissioned officer, Operation Cold Steel II, was asked while in the Navy as an enlisted sailor to be part of the Department of Defense bone marrow registry in 2002 -- and he gladly accepted.
"I was raised by my parents and they were preachers and missionaries and we just grew up helping people in South America, Central America, and my mom is from Costa Rica. It's just something you do," said Midkiff. "If you can help someone, you help them."
The initial procedure was a blood draw, with the sample remaining on file to match to individuals who potentially would need a transplant due to leukemia and other conditions.
Midkiff left the Navy and joined the Army. Then, in 2005, he received a phone call from Maryland.
"I got a phone call that said there was a kid with leukemia who needed a transplant and (they) asked if I was still interested," said Midkiff. "I said, 'Sure, I guess. I don't know anything about it. What do we have to do?'"
From there, Midkiff was scheduled for a physical at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
"They see if you're a match and if you're healthy and everything. Anything you have you're going to pass on to the person getting the bone marrow," said Midkiff. "A few months passed and they said, 'You're a match, we'll schedule the transplant.' A couple times they tried to schedule it, (the patient) would almost die then they had to get him healthy."
They were finally able to schedule the procedure for December 26, 2005.
"(It was) kind of painful after it got done. The way they do it nowadays isn't as painful as it was back then," said Midkiff. "Back then, while you're under they take this big needle. I've seen the size of it, it's pretty thick and they stick it in your pelvic bone and they draw that stuff out. They take out a liter of bone marrow," he added.
"When you wake up, it is sore. Like the pain scale, the little smiley faces they show you at the hospital, that goes from no pain to 10, I was at like a 14," said Midkiff. "You spent the night in there, then the next day you got up and hobbled your way back to your hotel room, to the airport. It was a pretty in-and-out procedure, but you're sore the first eight to 10 days, after that it just got easier. They [the doctors] would call every month [to check in], then three months, then six months, then yearly, then two years, until they quit calling."
Midkiff had no idea if the transplant had been successful until he received a package in the mail.
"A few months after the transplant, I got this box, pretty good sized box with a bunch of chocolate in it and a bunch of angels," he said. "Anything made of an angel you could think of, statues, pictures, trinkets and all those letters were inside."
There was a collection of cards and letters from the recipient and his family, which explained the significance of the angels. In one letter, the recipient's mother addressed it, "Dear Angel." Another from the recipient's father stated, "You are truly an angel on earth in human form."
Midkiff still didn't know much about the senders of the box, as the identity of the recipient is kept secret from the donor for one year to discourage possible extortion.
"They had scratched out all the names so you didn't know what anybody's name was," said Midkiff. "So then you could write them back, but you had to write back to Department of Defense in D.C. and they would take the letter and send it on to them."
The family and Midkiff wrote back and forth, mostly sharing holiday cards, until a year after the transplant.
"After a year, I was in my office and I get a call from (New) Jersey. I don't know anybody in Jersey," said Midkiff. "I said, 'Hello?' He said, 'Yeah, this is Travis Cimino,' and I said, 'Oh, Travis, how you doing?' and he said, 'Well, I have your bone marrow.' I said, 'Oh, ok, how's it working out for you.' He said he made a complete recovery so that was pretty cool."
Cimino made a full recovery in just a few weeks after receiving Midkiff's bone marrow.
"I was like the poster child for transplants," said Cimino. "Two weeks after I walked out of the hospital."
After speaking on the phone, Cimino and Midkiff kept in touch through Facebook and holiday phone calls, but had never met in person. That all changed when Midkiff came to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey for Task Force Ultimate, Operation Cold Steel.
Midkiff reached out to see if Cimino would be interested in meeting and he was. On Aug. 10, 2018, more than 12 years after the transplant, the two met face-to-face.
"I think he was kind of shy, but it is interesting because you look at him and think, if I hadn't done that he wouldn't be here. I didn't mind doing it," said Midkiff. "I've got kids. Hopefully they wouldn't mind doing that if I needed it. I think it's just something you do. There are some people who tell me they couldn't do that and I don't understand that. If you've got kids, how could you not do it?"
While Cimino and his fiancée met with Midkiff, Travis' parents were on vacation and unable to make the meeting.
"It would have been nice to meet his parents. That would have been cool," said Midkiff. "I think he was nervous, but you sit there and think because I have friends who have lost their children. To me it wasn't a big deal to do a bone marrow transplant, but obviously for his family, it was everything. There was nothing to be financially gained from this, you just do it because it's the right thing to do."
While Midkiff was disappointed not to meet Cimino's parents, he is planning to try to set up another meeting with them when he is back at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in the fall.
"I think it will be different because he [Cimino] told me she's very emotional," said Midkiff. "I think it will be a lot different with her. I think we'll probably sit down over dinner with his mom and dad."
Midkiff remains on the list as a donor and was called again about a year ago for another transplant.
"You can be on that list forever and never get called. I'm still on the list," he said. "I got called again last year, but then the recipient didn't make it."
To Midkiff, being on the list is a simple act and he wishes more military personnel would volunteer for the program.
"I can only think of the thousands of people we could have probably saved by now," he said. "I think a majority of military people would probably say, yeah, I'll go through with it. There is always a risk of something when you go in for an operation, but it's so small that the outcome is well worth it."
"It was an interesting experience," he added. "I think it's good to help people. It's a good program, doesn't get enough attention."
For more information on the DOD Bone Marrow program visit bethematch.org and www.salutetolife.org.