By Deb Silverthorn
With the saving of one life, we are taught we can save the world. Through medical advancements and bone-marrow transplantation, Dallas’ community has often made saving the world possible.
For 23-year-old Cody Strull, the notion of saving a life was something “others did.” Now, he’s one of the “others” by virtue of his match with a cancer patient to whom he donated stem cells.
Strull, the son of Keo and Brian and brother of Brandon and Sean, is a former Rubin Kaplan BBYO member and Richardson High School graduate. He was raised at Temple Shalom and is now involved with Intown Chabad.
In February 2016, as president of the Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) fraternity at the University of Texas, Strull expected no more than a good time during Dad’s Weekend. Basketball, revelry and casino games were augmented by a bone marrow donor drive by DKMS, an organization dedicated to fighting blood cancer and blood disorders.
“We planned a casino night and wanted a philanthropy to share the proceeds with,” said Marc Andres, a UCLA ZBT alum and father of UT alumni Louis, who graduated in 2016, and Miles, who graduated in 2018. The brothers helped coordinate Dad’s Weekend. Miles, then the fraternity’s philanthropy chair, chose the efforts of the Guillot family, whose son Zach died in 2014.
Zach fought hard to live, and through his battle, parents Julie and Jeff Guillot (a UT ZBT ’82 alum) and siblings Jake and Lili dedicated themselves to creating awareness and raising funds to find a cure.
“Jeff was in the pledge class with many of the dads of the participating kids, and being a brotherhood and a family, it was an easy decision,” Andres said. “The first year, we raised $1,500; the second, almost $5,000; last year, nearly $17,500; and, as it turns out, we helped make a match, and that’s worth so much more. Fraternity boys can get a bad rap but this is one for the books — great kids, great hearts.”
For Jeff, 35-plus years after he was first a pledge, going back was going home. “The closeness we shared back in the day remains, and that the men responded with action means a lot,” he said. “We want to prevent any family from going through what we have. When you raise money, you raise hope and you give a voice. The donations, both financial and now physical, mean everything.”
Strull enjoyed that 2016 ZBT Dad’s Weekend, taking a few minutes to swab his cheeks and fill out forms — he figured that was a nice thing to do but didn’t expect anything to come from it. Most prospective donors don’t.
“Jeff’s story was eye-opening and inspiring, but I didn’t think there would be any follow-up,” said Strull, who graduated in June and is a sales representative with the Dallas Stars.
But last May, Strull received a call asking him to complete more bloodwork. Soon, he was given the shocking result that he was a match — the second of a UT drive. Strull kept the information to himself, wanting time to think, until ensconced in a Birthright Israel trip weeks later.
By coincidence, one of the programs was about bone marrow transplantation, with a representative asking if anyone knew anyone with a connection. Strull, kept his secret and sat still — but not for long.
Three fraternity brothers had joined Strull on the Birthright trip and one, Mickey Wolf, raised his hand saying he didn’t personally, but that apparently one of 300 who was swabbed through his fraternity had been identified as a match.
During a break, Strull took his buddies aside and revealed his secret. They encouraged him to move forward. “Save a life, save the world,” they’d been taught, they reminded him. “You have to do this,” they said.
“Birthright was an incredibly spiritually awakening trip for me, and when I came home, I knew what I needed to do,” Strull said.
When Strull returned from Israel, he told his family and met with the medical team. In a week, eight tubes of blood were tested. There was waiting, and then a fateful call. At the end of July, during the first week with the Stars, he underwent five days of injections to prepare for the procedure, then sat for four hours during which the stem cells were extracted.
Within hours, the cells were on their way to the recipient, identified only as a male, who received the life-saving gift shortly thereafter.
“Our DNA is linked to our heritage. Jewish patients need Jewish donors — it’s never guaranteed but the chances of a match are greater,” said Amy Roseman, Dallas’ DKMS donor recruiter. “We need all donors, but our young people provide the best patient outcome. Finding a donor in one’s family is like finding a needle in a haystack. We need to fill the haystacks with needles from our ‘extended’ Jewishly connected family.”
“Those with aggressive blood cancers depend on donors for their lives,” said Julie Guillot, featured on the Jan. 17 “Thriver Thursday” series with “Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts. Jake, at age 3, went through the process to help his brother, most certainly extending Zach’s life.
“For patients who go through the intense treatments, without a match, it’s heart-rendering. For those who match, and follow through, it’s life-changing.”
New York resident Rich Rothman, a myelodysplastic syndrome survivor, attests to that truth. He received a transplant from Dallas’ Scott Price. The two, who met at DKMS’ 2018 awards breakfast, were matched at a DKMS drive at Parish Episcopal School, where Zach Guillot went to school.
“The DKMS family provided the opportunity for us to connect and I feel like we’ve known each other for ages,” said Price. “When people ask if the donation was painful, I say all I had to do was take a nap. The anesthesia made it quick and easy. It’s a small thing to help someone in need.”
Strull echoes the thought.
“I don’t know anything about the recipient, but he’s the one fighting cancer, throwing the punches,” he said. “I hope he knows I’m in his corner, ‘wiping his sweat, icing his face and massaging his back.’ I want him to kick cancer’s butt and raise his belt — a long life — above his head.”
Those ages 18-55 and in general good health can register at dkms.org. To donate to the Guillots’ foundation, with all donations funding genomic sequencing testing, visit TargetPediatricAML.org.