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Stem cell recipient meets life-saving donor for first time

Joane Straka was diagnosed with aggressive type of lymphoma leukemia. Kenneth Saloway chose to save her.
Joanne Straka meets her stell cell donor, Kennedy Saloway, for the first time at the Gift of Life's Annual Steps of Life 5K in Boca Raton. Jan. 21, 2024
Posted at 12:04 PM, Jan 21, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-21 18:26:16-05

BOCA RATON, Fla. — An annual 5K event turned emotional Sunday morning when the recipient of a life-saving stem cell transplant met the donor who saved her life for the first time.

More than a year ago, Joane Straka was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphona leukemia during a standard blood test.

The mother and grandmother was told the only thing that would save her life was a stem cell transplant, but no one in her family was a complete match.

Straka had no idea if she'd ever find a complete stranger to save her life until she got a call about 39-year-old Kenneth Saloway.

Saloway, a Marine veteran living in Boca, signed up to be a donor during a Hanukkah event. He turned out to be a complete match to Straka, and when he was asked to donate. He said he jumped at the chance.

On Saturday, Straka and Saloway met for the first time at Gift of Life's Annual Steps of Life 5K on Florida Atlantic University's campus, and gave each other a long, emotional hug.

“He’s made a difference in my whole family’s life.. My girls are 28 and 30. You don't think at 28 and 30 you’re going to lose your mom," Straka said. "I can’t even explain the difference he’s made in our lives."

"Having experienced the whole process, I hope to continue to raise awareness seeing first hand the impact," said Saloway.

Dozens came out Saturday to run or walk in the 5K, which circled around FAU's campus.

Jay Feinberg, CEO and Founder of Gift of Life, said the event is critical in raising funds and awareness for those in search of a donor.

Jay Feinberg, Gift of Life founder. Jan. 20, 2024.png
Jay Feinberg, Gift of Life founder.

"We want everyone to know about Gift of Life, that we're based here in Boca Raton, and how easy it is to save a life," Feinberg said. "Just a cheek swab gets you into the registry."

For Feinberg, it's personal. He had a life-saving transplant himself 28 years ago.

"I got to meet my donor, and it's just truly extraordinary, she's part of my family, said Feinberg.

Gift of Life operates a national bone marrow and stem cell registry, which saves the lives of leukemia and blood cancer patients every year.

If you are interested in signing up to be a donor, you can head here.