Life was pretty good.
It was 2010 and I was training for the Olympics, with hopes of becoming the first ever Winter Olympian to represent my home country of Nigeria. I was about to graduate from Yale and start my career as a hedge fund analyst with Goldman Sachs. Although I didn’t know it, I was about to fall in love — for only the second time in my life — to a beautiful, charming and successful doctor. My birthday was a week away.
Within six months, things began to unravel. I went from seemingly having everything in the palm of my hand to having next to nothing — I was diagnosed with two rare and aggressive cancers. By December, at the ripe old age of 26, I had to go on disability. My high-flying Wall Street career came to an end. As a kid who grew up beneath the poverty line in rural Alabama fighting for a chance at a better life, it hurt to get so close to achieving a level of wealth and success only to have it taken away.
But heck, that was only money. Losing the woman of my dreams hurt even worse. Our passionate affair was foundering on the rocks, for reasons largely outside of our control. Health crises will do that.
And the Olympics? I didn’t know if I’d live long enough to watch them, let alone compete.
Something strange happened. There was a part of me that felt liberated. That’s not to say I welcomed what was happening — obviously not. But my health was now out of my control. It left very little for me to hang on to. Nothing left to lose meant nothing could hold me back. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t bound by anyone’s expectations, including my own. For so long I had worried about getting the best grades, getting into the best college, grabbing the best job, and on and on. I could spend my last months on earth doing whatever the hell I wanted, with no repercussions.
I figured I’d train for the Olympics anyway. Even if I didn’t have a snowball’s chances in hell, I wasn’t going to let anything derail me. On top of that, the skeleton was exciting and I loved it. Who wouldn’t fall in love with diving headfirst down an icy track at 80 mph? My doctor thought I was stark raving mad when I told her I was moving to the Utah Olympic Park for training. I’d just completed eight weeks of high-dose chemotherapy.
My body had been ravaged by toxic chemicals. My mind was in constant haze called “chemo brain.” Hardly the ideal conditions to practice a high-risk, high-speed sport requiring instantaneous reflexes. Maybe I was being a little crazy. Let me revise that — I definitely was being a little crazy. I knew that on some level. But I had nothing to lose. The way I saw it, I already had cancer, what’s the worst that could happen? And if I crashed, I’d rather die headfirst on a skeleton sled having the time of my life than feet-first on a hospital bed.
During down time in the hospital, I started learning more about my disease — specifically, about how bone marrow transplants can save lives.
I came up with a plan. I decided to hold a bone marrow donor drive in Nigeria, the first ever in the country. Part of the motivation was personal: I needed a bone marrow or cord blood transplant to save my life and I couldn’t find a donor. But part of it was communal: People of Nigerian descent are vastly underrepresented in the bone marrow registry as a whole. In fact, African-Americans who need a transplant find a matching donor less than 17 percent of the time. The more healthy people who join the registry (a quick swab of saliva is all it takes to sign up), the more chances for matches.
The next step? Visit Nigeria. If competing in skeleton made my doctor nervous, my plans to visit a country with endemic malaria and influenza drove her up the wall. My immune system was non-existent, like a child without a vaccine, a side effect of all the chemo. If someone sneezed in my general direction, or I was bitten by a mosquito, I would be vulnerable to an infection that could be deadly.
But I wanted to hold that drive because there wasn’t a registry in Nigeria and I was determined to create one or die trying, just like I was determined to go to the Olympics. It was easy to be bold. I had nothing to lose.
Then came a twist no one expected. On the same day that I was scheduled to fly to Nigeria and hold the bone marrow drive, I found a match in the United States. A Nigerian woman had given birth to a healthy baby and donated her umbilical cord. The cord blood’s stem cells were compatible with my body. I could have a transplant. Suddenly, I had a lot to lose. Would I cancel the drive in Nigeria, stay at home and do the transplant? Or see the drive through even if it risked my life?
That was the day I made the decision that would govern the rest of my life. The six months that I’d spent living like I had nothing to lose were, believe it or not, some of the best in my life. They were frightening but I had never been as focused in my life. “Live like there’s no tomorrow” used to be a hackneyed phrase, but it was taking on real meaning for me.
To make a long story short, I went to Nigeria and held the first ever bone marrow donor drive, came back to the U.S. and had my transplant. Two years later, I founded the first bone marrow registry in Nigeria. This year, the registry saved the life of a cancer patient in Germany.
And I’m still training for the Olympics, not only in skeleton but also swimming. Sure, it’s a long shot and there are a lot of obstacles ahead. But it feels good to act a little crazy. I encourage you to try it some time.