Tuesday, 05 May 2020 10:39

A Perfect Match

By Megin Potter | News

In 2017, Jim Calhoun had no idea he was about to embark on a life-changing journey.

He was an outgoing guy who just liked to have a good time. 

The First Down

For 15 years, Calhoun worked full-time as a Human Resources Assistant at St. Peter’s Health Partners, while helping to build bathrooms, porches and decks in his spare time. He loved music, being outdoors, and trying out different craft beers. 

He was taking it easy that Labor Day weekend. He was vacationing with his family at their New Jersey lake house, but his father had just passed away two weeks prior and he wasn’t feeling the greatest. 

Falling asleep at 5 p.m. that evening, he woke at 11 p.m. and went to the bathroom. While washing his hands, he blacked out and hit his head on the granite countertop. It was only a small cut, but his face was badly bruised. 

At the hospital, blood tests revealed that Calhoun had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“I couldn’t believe it. I felt normal,” he said. 

The Greatest Gift

Jim Calhoun’s life changed overnight. 

“My focus was beating it and starting the process to get through it,” he said. 

Because he was 44 years old at the time he was diagnosed, in addition to chemotherapy treatments, doctors told him he was also going to need a bone marrow transplant. His name was put on the Be the Match national marrow registry. 

There was a 30-percent chance of finding a suitable donor match.

Over the next year, Calhoun was in and out of the hospital often, contracted pneumonia, and was battling fevers of 106 to 108 degrees. 

“My birthday is on Christmas and by that point I thought I just couldn’t fight anymore,” he said.

Not long after that, he got a text message saying he had a donor match.

“I called everybody I could think of, I was so excited!”

A Match Made in Marrow

Admitted to the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Care Center on January 26th, 2018, Calhoun spent three days getting high doses of radiation before his relatively painless transplantation procedure. 

A year later, he was able to meet his donor. 

“I was pacing around the house for two hours before I could call him. Once I did, it was like I’d known him forever,” said Calhoun.

Christian Montano lost several people close to him to cancer, so when the football team he was on at Brown University all decided to signup to be on the registry, he did too. 

That simple cheek swab revealed that he matched all 12 genes for transplant compatibility with Calhoun. Extracting the marrow from his pelvis was much harder. 

The doctors told him afterwards that being a football player made it so tough to get through his muscles. Their drill had worn blisters into their hands. Still, he was in and out of the hospital in a day. 

Unfortunately, the fire alarm at his hotel went off that night and he had to walk down seven flights of stairs to get out.

“Christian said it was the worst pain he’d been in, in his entire life,” recalled Calhoun.

Celebrating Survival

The following year, when Calhoun and his family reached the gate at Montano’s Connecticut home for a “Celebration of Life” party, he had to turn around.

“I left for a little while to collect my thoughts. I was so nervous. Inside, I was crying like a baby. I could never thank him enough for saving my life and making it so that I could spend more time with my wife and children,” said Calhoun.

Now an offensive lineman with Tulane University, Montano is a soft-spoken, humble, kind, generous kid, said Calhoun. Montano’s family began referring to Calhoun as “Uncle Jimmy” and his parents call him “son.”

In this Together

It’s friendship that has made Calhoun’s more than two-year journey through cancer manageable. His niece, Magen Whalen, held a community fundraiser, and local businesses and organizations have pitched in to help Calhoun pay for medical bills and travel expenses. 

Teaming up with others, he’s held several successful blood and marrow donor drives. He’s also reached out to other adult patients with support. 

“I try to help who I can to make them feel better and stay positive,” he said. 

Calhoun’s immune system is still compromised, so other illnesses continue to crop up, but he is trying to stay active and hopes to be able to work again soon. 

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I sit here and wait for the cancer to come back or keep on living?”

To offer financial help, donations are being accepted at any Adirondack Trust bank branch to the #CalhounStrong account. 

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