Serving a greater purpose

May 12, 2019

Like most people, Matt Otwinowski doesn’t like needles.

“I’d rather deal with a 300-pound offensive lineman than have a needle to put in my arm,” the 2015 La Porte graduate said.

Then again, the apheresis process, the final step in Otwinowski’s peripheral blood stem cell donation, couldn’t be done without him being poked in the arm, so he just looked away and talked to his mom Michelle.

Two years ago, when the University at Buffalo linebacker and his Bulls teammates registered for the ‘Be The Match’ program, he never remotely considered the possibility that the simple cheek swab would end up saving a person’s life.

“One in 430 people actually donate, so I didn’t think it would actually happen to me,” Otwinowski said. “When I signed up, I just thought it was like another requirement for the football team.”

The rest of the story began in March when Otwinowski got a call to inform him that he was determined to be a match. From there, additional blood testing was done to confirm the match. After confirmation, Otwinowski took a physical exam and more blood testing in Mishawaka while he was back from school during a break. A litany of health questionnaires later, he began a series of five filgrastim injections to stimulate his bone marrow, the first done in a clinical setting, the next three done by a home nurse at his Buffalo apartment.

On Easter Sunday, Otwinowski and his mom flew to Washington, D.C., from where he went to the Apheresis Association of Virginia in northern Virginia. The coincidence of the flight being on Easter, the religious commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection, was not lost on Otwinowski, a man of deep spirituality.

“I thought about that,” he said. “You have Lent, the 40 days you live out, then Easter, a day of joy and celebration. Obviously, I have strong faith. I believe in helping others.”

The following day (April 21), Otwinowski had the fifth and final filgrastim injection before the actual transplant, an exhausting seven-hour procedure during which the needed component in his blood was filtered out of one arm and his blood was put back into his other arm.

“I was really tired,” he said. “When I was done, I came (back to Buffalo) the same day. I had class and football the next day. I didn’t lift or run. I was just with the team.”

That day, Otwinowski was also informed that the transplant was successfully completed.

“It was a little emotional,” he said. “At the time, it was hard to think about it being someone I didn’t know. It was all confidential. I didn’t know a name. All I knew was it was a man in his 60s. It was hard to grasp the whole concept without meeting the person, but I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. I felt I had to do it. I think it’s one of the reasons I was brought to the University at Buffalo, to be in the registry. I had a sense that God gave me this opportunity. I believe I was destined to do it.”

In a video about ‘Be The Match’ on Buffalo’s football web page, associate head coach Rob Ianello called Otwinowski’s donation “a great example for our team of being selfless, giving back.”

“It’s a credit to Matt,” Ianello said. “He didn’t hesitate in wanting to help save somebody’s life.”

Otwinowski was appreciative of all the support he received, notably his mom, and the interest people showed throughout the process.

“I couldn’t have gone through it without everybody’s help,” he said. “There were a lot of prayers.”

Not one to gravitate to the spotlight, Otwinowski isn’t particularly comfortable with all the attention, but recognizes how important it is for him to be a face and voice for the program.

“The consolation is it will go toward somebody and their healthy recovery,” he said. “That’s the whole point of the publicity, to get others aware of what ‘Be The Match’ is, to sign up for the registry and possibly have the opportunity to do the same thing. I wanted to get that out there.”