When a winter storm came roaring into Texas on Valentine’s Day, 26-year-old Rodolfo Aguilar was worried as he watched the roads fill up with snow. He would soon lose power and water in his home, but that night his main concern was a person in another country whom he has never met.
Aguilar is an ICU nurse in Eagle Pass, and he had been scheduled to have his stem cells collected 2½ hours away at the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center in San Antonio. An international patient was counting on those cells for a second chance at life.
When Monday dawned on a snow-covered Texas, Aguilar knew there was no way he could drive to San Antonio, but he also knew he had to find a way and it had to happen soon. After a stem cell donor finishes the medication that stimulates extra cell production, there’s a window of only 24-48 hours to collect the cells.
As the storm incapacitated most of Texas over the next few days, Aguilar would watch firsthand as people across the state and even the nation worked through extremely difficult conditions to make his donation happen.
An emergency response
Samuel Hillhouse paced the floor of his darkened house in Austin as he tried to reach Aguilar, who had only spotty cell reception. Hillhouse, a program administrator for Be The Match, the stem cell registry for the National Marrow Donor Program, knew how important it was to get Aguilar to San Antonio as soon as possible.
But with power and internet problems occurring across Texas, there weren’t many local options for helping Aguilar. Hillhouse again removed his gloves in his cold home – this time to call the national headquarters of Be The Match in Minneapolis on his cellphone.
“These folks deal with the kind of weather we saw on a pretty regular basis,” Hillhouse said. “And so I was a bit worried when I called and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got 5 inches of snow, we need your help,’ that they’re thinking, ‘Oh, come on, Texas, just get a snow plow out there.’”
But he said the Minneapolis staff understood the severity of the situation, and the National Marrow Donor Program’s emergency response team immediately went to work finding a way to get Aguilar to San Antonio.
“They take pride in making sure that donations happen when they need to happen,” Hillhouse said.
By Monday night a chartered helicopter, paid for by Be The Match funds, was arranged to pick Aguilar up the next morning.
Nurses at the ready
Even though Dalton Agee and Naomi Herrera had no power or water in their homes, the two South Texas Blood and Tissue Center stem cell therapy nurses agreed to make the trek to the clinic Tuesday to take Aguilar’s donation.
“We said, ‘Yes, of course. We’ll be here,’” said Herrera, whose daughter Taylor, a 25-year-old mother of three, tirelessly encouraged people to sign up for the stem cell registry in the seven months between her acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis and her death in 2019. Herrera said many patients die waiting for a match that never comes.
“Whatever we have to do, we will do it,” she pledged.
A drive that normally takes 35 minutes took Herrera an hour and a half as she inched along on the icy, snowy roads. Agee’s drive, typically only seven minutes, took 30.
A donor’s ‘cool adventure’
Aguilar tried to get to the airport to meet the helicopter Tuesday morning, but his car battery refused to work in the frigid temperatures. This time Aguilar’s dad, who lives just across the border from Eagle Pass in Piedras Negras, came to the rescue with his truck to jumpstart the car.
Aguilar took each new obstacle in stride. He said he was excited about the helicopter ride and described it as “a pretty cool adventure.”
“I felt kind of a little important saying, ‘Hey, I gotta be at the airport for my private helicopter ride,’” Aguilar said, laughing.
His adventure was a little more exhausting once Aguilar reached San Antonio. Herrera said she, Agee and Aguilar had hospital cafeteria food for lunch because it was the only place she could find that was open.
Aguilar said the six-hour collection process left him feeling worn out, but he was happy to get it done.
And still the problems weren’t over yet. A second 24-48 window was closing – this one involving the transplantation of the donated stem cells, according to Herrera.
A courier sent to pick up and hand deliver the stem cells to the patient couldn’t get a flight out of San Antonio, Herrera said. So the helicopter was again chartered to take the courier to Dallas, where he was able to take a flight to the waiting patient.
Visit comes to an end
It was after 7 p.m. when the donation was finished. Herrera said it took about an hour and a half to drive Aguilar back to his hotel in downtown San Antonio. The drive was treacherous, and food options remained scarce.
“Everything was closed, so I had to just have some cheese strings and jerky for dinner,” Aguilar said, laughing.
With no water at his home before he left, Aguilar was really looking forward to a hot shower at the hotel, but it was not to be.
“They put me up in a really, really nice hotel,” Aguilar said. “The problem is everything was frozen, so as nice as it was it had no water. And it was by the River Walk, but I couldn’t walk the River Walk because everything was frozen, everything was closed.”
The next day the roads had cleared, but when Aguilar made it back to his car at the airport in Eagle Pass, the cold weather had another obstacle to throw at him. His car battery was dead again and he had to call a friend for a jumpstart.
Aguilar said when he did finally make it back to his house, he found a way to heat some water so he could finally take a well-deserved shower.
‘One of the greatest rewards’
Remembering the experience on a day with more typical warm, sunny Texas weather, everyone involved was able to laugh about the unusually difficult donation process. Aguilar described it as fun and said he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
“Lots of things happened that I wasn’t expecting, but I enjoyed all of them,” Aguilar said.
Hillhouse said Aguilar’s upbeat, determined attitude made the situation easier.
“This starts and ends with Rodolfo,” Hillhouse said. “Out of the 20 million people on the registry he was identified as the best match, and to have that one-in-a-million person be willing in a way that he was, I think it’s easy to be inspired by him and to do whatever you can to make it work. What he did is a truly incredible thing.”
“Rudy was so awesome,” Herrera said of Aguilar. “He was willing to stay for days at a time if he had to to get this collection done.”
Aguilar said he was just glad his donation would help another person.
“My career path and my lifestyle goes around me wanting to help out,” Aguilar said. “Giving someone a second chance at life, saying, ‘You’re living right now because I went out of my way to help you out,’ I think that will be one of the greatest rewards. Imagine being able to give somebody so many years, so many experiences.”
Working in a medical profession has been a part of Aguilar’s dream since before high school, he said, and although he feels that being an ICU nurse has fulfilled part of that dream, he has bigger plans to finish medical school and become a doctor.
He encouraged more people to register as a donor.
“It’s just a cheek swab and then you’ll be on the registry and maybe one day, you’ll be needed, too,” Aguilar said. “It only takes a little motivation to make a big change.”
For information on joining the stem cell donor registry, text “Taylor,” in honor of Herrera’s daughter, or “STBTC” to 61474.
Correction: This story has been updated with Rodolfo Aguilar’s correct name.