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Bone marrow donor, recipient's family connect in Juneau

Native boy meets his rare match in emotional reunion at the airport

Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Leonard Begaii was driving to work about six weeks ago in New Mexico when he got a phone call that changed his life.

He answered it, but the caller was silent. He was about to hang up when he heard an emotional voice.

"She told me, 'My name is Rachel. I'm the mother of Alex Cesar,'" he said. "'That's the patient you donated the bone marrow to.' "

A year and a half after helping save the life of a Juneau boy, Begaii had finally learned the boy's name.

This week, Begaii, 29, was able to meet him. He and his family were flown up from New Mexico to meet Alex and his family, to celebrate the boy's eighth birthday and be honored by the city Monday evening.

"I just wanted to help somebody out," Begaii said. "I kept wondering who got it, where it went to."

Alex's battle with leukemia inspired a statewide drive for bone marrow in 2005. More than 1,000 people registered in the National Marrow Donor Program across Alaska.

A match was not easy to find for Alex, who is one-quarter Filipino and three-quarters Tlingit. It came from an unexpected source: a Navajo man in New Mexico.

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Begaii arrived at a donating facility just as the staff was closing it down one afternoon in April. He talked them into taking one last sample. The blood matched, and a transplant took place later in October.

Much of Begaii's desire to donate sprung from health issues that his own son faced. When his son, Xavier, was an infant, doctors discovered a rare chromosomal disorder. They said the boy had six months to a year to live. Now he's 10.

Begaii decided to donate the marrow even though it was against his Navajo beliefs, he said. The Navajo say that if you give away part of your body, you give away part of your spirit.

"With my wife standing behind me through the whole procedure, I was glad to do it," he said.

The transplant process has been overwhelming for Alex's family, but it was successful.

Alex's mother, Rachel Dugaqua, said Begaii saved Alex's life. She and Alex's aunt, Andrea Quinto, and other family members gathered at the Juneau International Airport on Friday to meet Begaii and his extended family - but the flight was sent to Sitka due to snow. They were able to land later.

"You don't know what to expect," Dugaqua said as she waited for the plane. "It's been a major roller coaster of emotion."

"We called," she added. "We got to talk on the phone. He sent me a photo, and we sent him photos too. But it's all very different face-to-face."

Alex was playing with other kids. When asked if he wanted to talk about his experiences, he just shook his head. He's shy, his family said.

Every family member was affected differently by the events, Quinto said.

"For me, it was a fight to find a donor," Quinto said. "You got to fix what's broken. But you can't fix it if the doctors don't have what they need."

"We have a good success story," she added. "We just happened to be the lucky ones."

Begaii and his family have been enjoying the snow and getting to know Alex. They were able to bring their five children, ranging in ages 4 to 12, and several other family members for a total of nine. They all watched Monday evening as Begaii was named an honorary citizen of Juneau.

The visit has been hectic at times. But meeting Alex and his family has given Begaii a sense of peace.

"It put my heart at ease," Begaii said. "I'm glad somebody is alive today because of what I did."

• Ken Lewis can be reached at ken.lewis@juneauempire.com.



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