Public Safety Officer Meets the Boy He Saved by Donating Bone Marrow

by Meghan Berry

Dec. 21, 2011Bookmark and Share

The first years of Matthew La Croix’s life were consumed with hospital visits. Born prematurely, he underwent brain surgery at five days, nearly died at six weeks and soon after was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder—Diamond Blackfan anemia—that required frequent transfusions. By the time Matthew was 3 in 2010, he needed a bone marrow transplant to survive.

Anthony Tavarez hugs 5-year-old Matthew La Croix at a Nov. 7 benefit for blood diseases at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Anthony Tavarez hugs 5-year-old Matthew La Croix at a Nov. 7 benefit for blood diseases at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The La Croixs turned to the National Marrow Donor Program registry, knowing the likelihood of a match was low because of Matthew’s Puerto Rican, Mexican and French background. Minority donors are underrepresented in the program, leading to efforts to encourage donations from racially and ethnically diverse communities.

Almost 10 years earlier, Columbia University Public Safety Officer Anthony Tavarez, then an undergraduate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had his cheek swabbed at a health fair and joined the registry. He forgot about it for nearly a decade until he got the call: His tissue was a perfect match for a desperately ill boy in San Francisco. Tavarez, also of Puerto Rican ancestry, didn’t hesitate. “When do you ever get a chance to save someone’s life?” he asked.

Matthew received the bone marrow transplant on July 23, 2010, and has grown into an energetic 5-yearold who chases the family dog, plays sports and excels in school. “We haven’t known what normal is,” his mother, Deanna La Croix, said. “Now we get a chance.” By law, the donation had to remain anonymous for a year. But La Croix became fixated on the donor: Who would give so selflessly? She got her answer on Nov. 7, when the New York Blood Center, which was involved in the marrow donation, flew the La Croixs to New York to meet Matthew’s donor onstage at a benefit at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

La Croix remembers shaking backstage before the introduction. “They called our names and everything turned black,” La Croix recalled. “I was crying and crying and couldn’t let go of him.” Tavarez said he “had thought about that moment for an entire year.”

Afterwards, dozens of people told Tavarez how much they admired him, including Christopher W. Tierney, an actor who performs stunts as Matthew’s favorite superhero, Spider-Man, on Broadway. The next day, Tierney gave the La Croix family and Tavarez a backstage tour of Foxwoods.

La Croix, who says she is still unsure how to express her gratitude, flew Tavarez to California this month and rolled out the red carpet. As executive assistant to the city manager of Redwood City, a suburb south of San Francisco, she arranged lunch with the mayor, a reception with the police chief and a proclamation honoring Tavarez at a City Council meeting, where he was also given a key to the city. He toured the San Francisco-based entertainment company Lucasfilm, visited wine country and met the extended La Croix family. “My house is too small for the number of people who want to hug Tony,” said La Croix, who held a fund-raiser in order to make the trip possible.

“To hear that you’re the answer to someone’s prayer, to be able to help someone—even going through pain and sacrifice—it was totally worth it,” said Tavarez, who says he feels a renewed sense of purpose since his donation. He completed a certificate program in business at Columbia and is pursuing acting in his free time. “I have a much more positive outlook on life,” he said. “It might be unusual for a New Yorker to wake up smiling, but I do and I feel great.”

“What a selfless act,” La Croix said. “What do you do? What do you say? If I had a billion dollars to give him, would that be enough? No, I don’t think so.”

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