Infectious disease research assistant donates stem cells during COVID-19 crisis

Jun 04, 2020

Riley knew that donating stem cells was needed to save his recipient's life, and traveled to Florida to donate in spite of the pandemic. His fiancée Maria accompanied him to the collection center. 


Riley is having a busy year. In June 2019, while on a Birthright Israel tour, a Gift of Life spokesperson came in to explain the bone marrow registry and invite his group to swab. He thought it sounded like a good way to help someone else, in alignment with his plan to go to medical school, so he swabbed his cheek and put it in the back of his mind.

But in January 2020, he found an urgent message on his voice mail asking him to call Gift of Life right away.

“I was very surprised at the quick turnaround and how fast I was found as a match,” said Riley, whose recipient is a man in his early 60s battling myelodysplastic disorder, a form of blood cancer. “I committed to donating very quickly, but my only question was how to get time off of work.” Riley is a research assistant at an infectious disease lab in Arizona. “It seemed like a pandemic was emerging and we expected to be very busy.”

In early February, Riley traveled to Gift of Life’s collection center in Boca Raton for a preliminary medical exam, required for every donor to ensure they are in good health and able to donate stem. But by the time he returned to Florida in late March for the stem cell collection, the world had changed.

Even with this worldwide health care crisis, we also have to remember that many people are fighting cancer or have immune system issues and need transplants.

“The second time I flew, the airplanes were nearly empty and there were delays,” said Riley. “It was all hands on deck at work to do diagnostics on critical samples, evaluate who was getting hit with coronavirus, where it would jump to next, and whether we could create a predictive map of how the infection was moving through the population.” In spite of the importance of this work, his employer was happy for his opportunity to save a life.

“The fact that we’re able to be here during this time and I’m able to save someone’s life in spite of the pandemic going on is a big deal,” said Riley, whose fiancée Maria came with him to keep him company, and decided to join the registry herself. “Collection seems to go really fast. You watch a movie, then a little TV and you’re done. Plus, those fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies are great!”

“Even with this worldwide health care crisis, we also have to remember that many people are fighting cancer or have immune system issues and need transplants,” said Riley. “I went through a small risk to help my stem cell recipient. I urge others to step outside your comfort zone and help others.” 

Riley is a graduate of Northern Arizona University, and will start medical school at University of Arizona this fall. In his free time, he enjoys the outdoors, hiking, taking the dogs for walks, going to the gym, and also likes to read a good book, play videogames and watch sports.