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Donor registry unites two lives from afar

They both spent the better part of a year making up stories about each other.

All Nate Lull knew was that he was donating marrow to a 44-year-old man.

All Mike Wenger knew was that his donor was a 28-year-old man.

So each spent time creating backstories for the other, each wondering who this person was on the other end of the medical equation.

Last month, the two finally met. They already were a perfect match for the marrow donation. On a 10-point scale they were a 10-point match, which is extremely rare among stranger matches. Turns out they were a perfect match as friends.

It was two years ago when Lull was working with the Canisius College hockey team as the program’s radio voice when he got to know Chris Rumble. The Golden Griffin defenseman was returning to the ice after a battle with leukemia and had sent an email to friends, family and teammates sharing his story and urging them to register with “Be The Match” – the organization operated by the National Marrow Donor Program to manage and facilitate the largest and most diverse marrow registry.

Lull, who now is the sports director at the radio station WCDO in Sidney near the Catskill Mountains, kept in contact with Rumble through the process. While Rumble didn’t have to go through the national organization since his brother was a match, he saw many other kids waiting for donors when he was getting treatment at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“You never know the face on the other side,” Rumble said. “Knowing Nate and hearing the process he was going through was a totally different feeling for me. In your head, you have an image of who’s on the other side, who the donor is. You think it’s some big superhero saving your life and it ends up being Nate Lull, the nicest guy you’ll ever meet who probably weighs 150 pounds soaking wet.”

The characterization of “hero” sits uncomfortably with Lull.

“I still don’t feel like I did anything extraordinary,” Lull said. “So many people come up and shake my hand and they’re crying and hugging me. I don’t feel like I did anything heroic. I just felt it’s something anyone can do and I was in the right place at the right time.”

You’ll understand if Wenger and his family disagree and see Lull in superhero terms.

Wenger is now in remission from Acute Myeloid Leukemia, living in Tennessee with his wife and three children.

He remembers the day he found out there was a match for him. He doesn’t remember all his emotions, just that he was overwhelmed and grateful.

“The minute we found out it was one of those things where he’s been incredibly close to my heart and to my family’s heart since day we heard about him,” Wenger said. “We were praying for him and thinking about him all the time and we didn’t know who he was. He was some random dude who could potentially save my life.”

Both were eager to contact the other, but the program requires a one-year wait. Lull would periodically get updates and was encouraged as the prognosis kept improving.

Finally they were allowed to exchange emails. Then they talked for the first time on Easter Sunday.

“I definitely was nervous because you just don’t know what to expect and he turned out to be one of the nicest people that I’ve ever met,” Lull said of that first conversation. “It was so easy to talk to him. The first five minutes of the conversation I had a huge smile on my face because I knew he was someone I was going to be able to open up to and chat with and that took away all the nerves I had.”

But there was more to chat about than remission. There were also sports.

Lull is a sports broadcaster and runner. Wenger works full-time for his church as an athletic and sports director.

“It gave us this common ground,” Lull said. “He played a little college basketball and has been very athletic his whole life, playing basketball and running and riding his bike and golfing. He dabbled a little in college with sports broadcasting on the campus station so it was funny we had this sports connection. If we didn’t want to talk about bone marrow we could talk about sports and that made it real easy.”

Wenger invited Lull to Tennessee in May so the two could meet in person.

“On the plane I got really nervous,” Lull said. “I had a layover in Philadelphia and I was there by myself and wished I could turn around and go home I was so nervous. When I stepped off the plane onto the runway, I could see in the terminal there were like 20 people there with signs and cheering and it was just crazy. I took a deep breath and said ‘Here we go’ and the minute I met everybody I was so glad I was there. All the nerves went away.

“For me the best part was sitting on their back porch just talking about everything from jobs to life to bone marrow.”

“He’s more than a friend, he’s a brother for me,” Wenger said. “My family is in a great situation because of him. I can’t imagine a better guy to find. He’s just nice. He’s kind. He was great with my kids. Great with my parents. My wife thinks the world of him. She thinks he’s given so much to her, she can’t talk about Nate without tearing up a little bit. It’s one of those things, I don’t know how to do long-distance relationships, but Nate has a home, he has friends, he has people here.”