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When Nick Vojnovic, president of Little Greek Fresh Grill, attended a donation drive held in honor of a boy with leukemia at one of the chain’s stores, he registered for a Be the Match Registry, which identifies potential donors for people in need of bone marrow and stem cell transplants. Like other participants, the then-president of Beef ‘O’ Brady’s gave a sample of his DNA by rubbing a cotton swab on the inside of his mouth. Five years later, a representative of the registry called Vojnovic because his sample was a match for someone in need of marrow.
“I told them of course I would donate,” Vojnovic says. But when he completed testing to ensure he was physically ready for a donation, there was a problem.
“When they called me back, they said they couldn’t take me as a donor because something was wrong with my blood,” Vojnovic says. “So I went to my doctor, but my doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong.”
Over the next 10 years, Vojnovic continued with his regular life, becoming president of Little Greek Fresh Grill in 2011. But this past February, the problem resurfaced.
“My red blood cell count was getting lower and lower, and that’s when my doctor sent me to an oncologist,” Vojnovic says.
He was diagnosed with primary myelofibrosis, a type of leukemia in which abnormal cells take over bone marrow and cause scarring and inflammation that makes it difficult for the marrow to create normal blood cells. He was told that the average life expectancy for someone with myelofibrosis is three years.
Vojnovic was shocked by the news. “I had never been in the hospital, and I’d always been very healthy. I always eat right and work out, so I was taken aback,” he says. “My head started spinning with all the different ramifications.”
But Vojnovic’s oncologist noted that he was a good candidate for a stem cell transplant that could save his life. Even though a transplant offers a change for promising results, it’s a risky procedure, so he tried to avoid it by participating in medical trials instead.
But when one of his markers jumped, Vojnovic’s oncologist told him it was time for a transplant while he was still in good health.
Vojnovic was lucky to find one matching donor—a 22-year-old woman who agreed to the procedure. Despite having more than 14 million people in the database worldwide, 14,000 people in need of transplants do not have matches, Vojnovic says.
As of now, he is still waiting for the transplant. The procedure comes with risks. The donor and Vojnovic must be tested regularly leading up to the transplant to ensure they are both still in good health.
During the transplant, Vojnovic’s own damaged bone marrow will be destroyed, and the replacement stem cells will be infused. The cells must accept Vojnovic’s organs. If they do not attack his body, Vojnovic will slowly be taken of anti-rejection drugs over the course of a year before he is considered to have recovered.
In the meantime, Vojnovic must deal with the physical and psychological ramifications of his illness and the procedure.
“You wake up at 4 in the morning because you’re wondering, ‘What if,’” he says. “What am I going to do? Who is going to watch my mother with dementia? What about the business? What about personal stuff?”
The process has also impacted his work, as Vojnovic has been traveling the country to visit different medical centers for treatment, such as the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Travel for treatment combined with the demands of his job has limited his ability to get out and attend meetings for the various industry boards he serves on.
Though Vojnovic has been challenged by his health and treatment, he wants to do more to help others in similar situations. The 35-year industry veteran sees his own story as a way to help others in need of transplants. He says that people are more willing to get involved when they can understand how a disease has impacted the life of one individual. By sharing his story and leading drives to find more people to join the Be the Match Registry, Vojnovic and his associates have inspired more than 600 people to register with Be the Match.
“Once we put the word out, old friends from my fraternity, neighbors, and even just random people have been doing such wonderful things,” he says.
Vojnovic’s fraternity at Cornell held a registration drive, while Don Fox, the CEO of Firehouse Subs, shared a letter Vojnovic wrote about Be the Match to all of the company’s franchisees, encouraging them to sign up for the donor program. Some of his former coworkers from Beef ‘O’ Brady’s have also held registration drives in their stores.
Marc Silver, Nick Vojnovic’s contact at the Be the Match Registry, has helped him and others set up donation and registration drives in diverse locations, such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, Panera Bread, Starbucks, Chili’s, independent restaurants, and more.
Because each restaurant has different clientele, staff, and needs, part of Silver’s job is also to help businesses and organizations find the best way for restaurants to participate.
“When a restaurant calls and tells me they want to get involved, we’ll sit down and figure out the best way to get involved,” Silver says.
To get involved, you can register, hold a drive, or donate. For more information about how to give back in Vojnovic’s honor, visit http://join.bethematch.org/fl.