As Jim Donovan, the radio voice of the Cleveland Browns, sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with his family and friends last Thursday, there was an unfamiliar, yet tremendously important face at the table.
Dallas Gentry, a native of Wyse, Virginia, a small town along the Kentucky and Tennessee borders, is the man who donated stem cells back in the summer of 2011 to Donovan as the veteran sportscaster continued his decade-long battle with a form of leukemia.
“It was the most incredible Thanksgiving I could’ve ever imagined having because I got to meet the person that gave me his cells and saved my life,” Donovan said prior to Sunday’s game against the Jaguars. “We had talked on the phone and written to each other, but to be able to meet him was just incredible. It’s been the best Thanksgiving. No one could ever top it.”
By making a decision when he was 19, the 36-year old Gentry was able to save Donovan’s life.
A frequent blood-drive participant, Gentry was asked if he would ever consider donating bone marrow. He did not hesitate to volunteer, and was tested as a match in two other cases before being a perfect 10-point match for Donovan.
“Thank you seems very appropriate, but what can you say? It’s just unbelievable,” Donovan said. “The whole thing’s been unbelievable. It’s just been incredible, going through this whole process because you go through so many downs and then, ups.
“On Wednesday, when he came in to visit and join us for Thanksgiving and the whole week, it was unbelievable to put a face to it and get a chance to talk about what he went through to give it to me, which was a lot, and then, he wanted to know what I went through to get it and how it went. It’s just been the most amazing thing that I think I would ever go through.”
After the donation is made, there is a waiting period before each party is presented with the opportunity to talk with the other. It has to be mutually agreed upon, and for Donovan, the decision was an easy one.
“You don’t know who the person is that gave it to you for a long period of time,” Donovan said. “When you finally find the person and you get a chance to meet them and they get a chance to be with your family, it’s just incredible. We were speechless, and I think he was speechless too. It’s just been unbelievable, and that’s hard for me to be speechless.”
Back in the summer of 2011, while Donovan sat in the hospital in Cleveland awaiting the transplant, his donor was undergoing a battle of his own in Nashville, Tenn.
Gentry suffers from sleep apnea, so instead of drawing the bone marrow from his hip, the doctors at Vanderbilt University had to put him on a regiment of medication for five days, which causes pain in any bone that had ever been broken. Despite pain in his collarbone, which he broke in the fifth grade, as well as his shoulder and back, Gentry fought through it because a low dose of Percocet made him ill.
He underwent the nearly four-hour procedure with the knowledge of how a change-of-heart decision would affect the recipient.
“Prior to taking the shots, they said, ‘You could back out any time you want to, but as soon as you start this procedure, we’re taking the person that needs this and wiping his whole immune system out, and if you back out, he’s probably going to die,’” Gentry said. “I was thinking, ‘Man, who in their right mind would back out. If I knew I was going to die doing it, I’d still do it at this point.’”
It was that decision to persevere through the pain that gave Donovan a second chance at life. As part of thanking Gentry for his life-saving choice to donate stem cells to a complete stranger, Donovan hosted his donor in the home team radio booth Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium as the Browns battled the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“It was a neat experience for me,” Gentry said. “I showed up Wednesday, had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with them, their friends and family. He showed me around and I met more friends (Saturday) night, and it’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience.
“I’ve always heard, ‘If you like what you do, you never work a day in your life.’ That amazes me that somebody is so passionate, has that much heart about their job, and he’s a Browns fan with a lot of heart. I’m very glad that I was able to help him.”
And it is because of the generosity of Gentry that Donovan now considers him family.
“Absolutely, it’s safe to say that,” Donovan said with a smile. “We’ve just had the greatest weekend. Dallas has fit in, and we definitely have grown one.”