Matched: Jess' unlikely stem cell journey

"You never know when somebody that you care about, that you love, or that you're close with is going to get diagnosed with a terrible or life threatening disease." - Jordan Jess

Jordan Jess donates stem cells in February of 2013 as a part of the The Be the Match Registry.

By Steve Granado / West Virginia Power | June 2, 2017 3:43 PM ET

West Virginia Power pitcher Jordan Jess might come across as nonchalant about saving another person's life. He goes about his business in Minor League Baseball with the knowledge that there's another human out there breathing because of him.

While pitching at the University of Minnesota, Jess and his teammates received terrible news. Todd Oakes, their pitching coach and mentor, was diagnosed with acute myeloid lymphoma, a cancer that attacks blood cell production. Oakes had been a coach for the Golden Gophers since 1998 before being diagnosed in 2012. Oakes fought this cancer on three separate occasions before ultimately losing his battle in May of 2016. He coached at Minnesota for 18 years before passing, influencing the likes of hundreds of players, including Glen Perkins of the Minnesota Twins in 2003 and 2004. Jess had never been directly involved with cancer until his mentor fought the disease.

 

Oakes' battle kick-started a movement within the Minnesota athletic community. Then just a sophomore, Jess and his roommates were walking through campus one day during an event called the HopeDay Festival. Jess noticed a booth bearing the name "Be The Match." The Be the Match Registry is the largest hematopoietic blood cell registry in the world with nearly 11 million registered potential donors. Jess figured, given his now direct ties to cancer, why not sign up?

 

The chances of being a donor are extremely slim; about one in 430 people go on to actually make a donation. After signing up for the registry, Jess was utterly surprised to receive an email two months later that he was a potential match.

 

Jess called the organization the morning after receiving the email not knowing what he was getting himself into or what to expect.

 

"When you first get the email saying that you are a match, you get told very minimal details. It could be anybody around the whole world, it could be your neighbor, you never really know." The only information he received was that the potential recipient was a 35 year old female with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Jess went along for the ride. He went in for further testing to make sure that both of them were entirely compatible. The woman needed stem cells. Roughly every two weeks, Jess was in contact with the organization, getting physicals, testing vitals and getting updates on the mystery woman.

 

"The whole process was pretty regimented and pretty routine. It was nothing super crazy that I had to do," he explained. "I have donated blood, but this was something I had never done before. It was something I was excited about, my family was excited about and our [baseball] program was excited about."

 

Nearly two months went by until Jess got the life-changing message: she was ready and he was a perfect match.

 

"It felt pretty cool to be in that position and be fortunate enough to be a match," he happily said.

Jess went in to donate his stem cells. The process of continually transferring and filtering his blood from one arm to the other took over six hours. Needles were placed near the inner cut of each elbow as Jess sat in a chair watching 24 liters of blood flow back and forth.

 

The woman received the stem cell transplant and the operation was a success. She now lives a normal and healthy life.

 

"[It was] a small inconvenience, if you can even call it that, compared to what my recipient was going through and the troubles that she faced," Jess said.

 

Jess had saved a woman's life, no matter how much he downplays it. Now he advocates for the Be The Match Registry, creating a movement for Minnesota Athletics. In 2017, nearly every member of the Gophers' baseball team signed up for the registry in honor of their late mentor. Oakes' legacy lives on and effects all sports at the university, with many other teams signing up as well, including softball, basketball, football and others. Two other athletes have made a donation to date in addition to Jess; baseball player Cody Campbell and swimmer Kayla Anderson.

 

The Golden Gopher athletic department is now deeply rooted with the Be The Match Registry, looking to save the lives of people every year. And, while Jess has moved on from Minnesota, he would love to continue the partnership between himself and the organization.

 

"If there was an opportunity to do it again, I wouldn't hesitate. It would be an honor to do it again." He hopes to get involved even more in the future now that he has gone through the entire process successfully. Being a match twice is even more unlikely than it was the first time around.

 

Jess continues his pursuit of a Major League career. He's now in his second year of professional baseball, pitching out of the bullpen with West Virginia. Keeping his mind on baseball is all he really knows even considering the trials that he's been through over the last few years. It's changed him for the better, now a year removed from losing a close friend to the unforgiving disease that is cancer.

 

"You never know when somebody that you care about, that you love, or that you're close with is going to get diagnosed with a terrible or life threatening disease," Jess stated. "It hits home when it's somebody that you're really close with. If you have the opportunity to sign up and help save somebody's life, I don't see why you wouldn't."

 

For more information, to donate or to register, please visit bethematch.org.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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