Once Strangers, Now True Blood Brothers

The story of a professional soccer player who saved the life of a cancer patient
Friday, May 8, 2015 - 3:37pm

“There he is – there’s my brother!” says Phil Richiuso, spotting the #18 FC Dallas jersey during a Major League Soccer game on TV. Richiuso doesn’t know much about professional soccer. And #18, goalkeeper Chris Seitz, isn’t really related to the 57-year-old man from Erie, PA.

So how did Richiuso become Seitz’s biggest fan? Seitz provided the lifesaving bone marrow Richiuso needed to battle acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a type of cancer in which the bone marrow cannot produce enough healthy blood cells. Shortly after his diagnosis three years ago, it was clear he needed a bone marrow transplant. No family members were a match for him, so an urgent search began for an unrelated donor.

“I knew the mortality rate was high for my diagnosis,” says Richiuso. "In the back of my mind, I thought, I might not wake up tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, Chris Seitz was well into his season as a backup goalkeeper for FC Dallas when he learned he was a match for a patient. He had joined a bone marrow donor registry several years earlier when the wife a former teammate was fighting leukemia. Now he was being called into play.

Seitz knew a little about leukemia. Just months earlier, his father donated peripheral blood stem cells to Seitz’s uncle, who had leukemia, through apheresis, a process similar to blood donation. But Richiuso needed marrow, which had to be extracted from Seitz’s pelvis.

The timing was difficult: Leaving during the season to donate marrow might kill Seitz’s professional soccer career—and his fiancée was expecting their first child. But he didn’t hesitate: “It was a no brainer, given everything my family was going through.”

No professional athlete had ever gone through this, so a team trainer talked with Seitz’s doctors and created a return-to-play plan for Seitz, and accompanying him to Washington, D.C., for the marrow harvest. Seitz was under anesthesia during the procedure and says it was no big deal. From the outside, I had two ‘little kid’ Band-Aid’s.”

Richiuso underwent the transplant at Roswell Park. Today he remains cancer-free.

Just before the Christmas 2013, Richiuso learned that Seitz was interested in being contacted. “I called him right away. I left a message saying, ‘I’m the guy whose life you saved. If you want to talk, call me.’” Seitz called back immediately, and the two have been in frequent contact ever since.

More good news: Seitz and his wife are now the parents of a little girl. And although Seitz missed the remainder of the 2012 soccer season during his two-month recovery from the marrow harvest, FC Dallas picked up his contract option, and in 2014 he enjoyed his best season yet.

Would he do it again? “Absolutely. I hope this helps create awareness about bone marrow donation. My goal is to get as many people as possible on the registry, so more people can have the opportunity for a second chance.”

To learn about becoming a blood or marrow donor, visit BeTheMatch.org.