New Orleans Saints running back Ty Montgomery donned a special pair of cleats for the Falcons game last Sunday. His cleats intend to spread awareness for Be the Match, a registry for life-saving bone marrow donors.
For many people, sports transcend past the turf and the 60-minute game clock, and parallel their lives in several ways. For Dorian Price, sports both serve as an escape, and have taught him how to deal with unfathomable adversity.
A former college football player at Louisiana Tech, 32-year old Dorian Price was the pinnacle of health. He frequented the gym 5-6 days a week, ate healthy, and lived an active lifestyle. Dorian was used to bodily aches and pains; his regimen was typically an Epsom Salt bath, a dose of Tylenol, rest, and do it all again the next day. In the summer of 2019, Dorian started to experience pain in his right calf; he initially thought it was just a muscle strain from exercise.
“The biggest takeaway I can say, honestly, is to listen to your body,” Dorian told me. “Had I not gone into the urgent care to seek help for the pain in my leg, then I may be singing a whole different song, we may have been writing another story right now. But, I listened to my body that day.”
Initially, Dorian wrote his leg pain off, as most of us likely would. While his athletic background provided him with strength and an ability to persevere through adversity, it also becomes a risk factor when it comes to bodily aches and pains. Understandably, with the hits and grueling practices players endure, leg pains almost never sound alarm bells outright. However, like most athletes, Dorian had a keen awareness about his body that allowed him to realize something was different.
“The fact that I couldn’t put pressure on it was the end all be all,” Dorian said. “I’ve had injuries before, and I was able to move it around. But when I actually put weight on it, I definitely knew that it was time to stop being my own doctor, and to go in and listen, and have it looked at. At least I would have had professional eyes on it, and not just me trying to put a band-aid on a serious situation.”
Dorian quickly learned that his calf pain was due to a blood clot, which led to more questions than answers. When he underwent further testing, Dorian was diagnosed with leukemia. “When I first got the news, I was just completely caught off guard, because that’s not what I expected,” Dorian told me. He was in the ICU and hospital for about a month after his diagnosis, where he began to experience feelings of anxiety. He admits that the mental battle is the hardest part.
“You don’t know what the future holds. And there’s no guarantees, even up until now. I mean, I’ve been battling this over a year now, they can’t guarantee anything is going to resolve the issue or work 100%. Just the not knowing what the future holds, it just creates so many thoughts on both sides of the spectrum, both positive and negative. And it’s a challenge to stay afloat, to be honest with you.”
Dorian began playing football when he was five years old. Through the years, the sport taught him how to deal with challenges, adversity, and pushing his body both physically and mentally. He credits these traits for his ability to stay strong, and to bring himself back into a healthy state through 11 rounds of chemotherapy.
“It definitely plays a major part in it. It’s something that you might not realize until you are in those tough situations, the things that you carry from your past experiences that can actually bring you through what you’re dealing with right now.”
While learning about Dorian’s story, what stood out most was his leadership, and his use of his platform to advocate for everyone in his position; a win for them means just as much to him as a win for himself. This innate quality has been a constant in Dorian’s life, be it on the football field, in the classroom, or in his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. Despite the circumstances, he feels grateful for the opportunity to shed light on people in his situation, and the ability to help even just one person. This is incredibly commendable when you consider his personal hardships battling this illness.
While the chemotherapy treatments helped curb the severity of Dorian’s leukemia, it ultimately isn’t a cure. In order to fully eradicate it, Dorian needs a bone marrow transplant. Patients diagnosed with leukemia, and other life-threatening blood disorders, require either a blood stem cell or bone marrow transplant, depending on their condition and health status. Thankfully, Dorian is not alone in this fight; when a member of Dorian’s fraternity saw his story on Facebook, he reached out to a relative with Be the Match. Together, Dorian and his representative, Eric Bolton, have fervently searched for a match donor.
Unfortunately, African Americans are at an incredible disadvantage for finding a match on the registry. While a white patient has a 77% chance of finding a match, conversely, African American patients have a 23% chance. Out of the 22 million potential donors on the Be the Match Registry, just 4% are African American. Dorian has been searching for a donor for about a year, after an unsuccessful transplant from his sister, who was a half-match. Dorian’s condition, as explained by Bolton, requires a full match for a successful bone marrow transplant.
Growing up, Dorian bonded with his dad over football, who was his coach at five years old. It’s been a constant his entire life. As a Louisiana native, he and his family are, “die hard Who Dats.” He admits that, at one point, he couldn’t take the misery of the Saints of years past, and became a Philadelphia Eagles fan as a kid. Nonetheless, he always will root for his “Home Team.” Dorian has found sports to be an escape for him during this time.
“Of course, when athletes are playing, you know that they’re just doing their job. But to those of us that are dealing with something personally, we can just have this couple of hours to just look at that and focus on that. And you know, root for our favorite teams, and it allows you to take your mind off of what you’re going through for a few hours.”
Recently, Saints running back Ty Montgomery did some work on social media to spread awareness for Be the Match. The experience really affected him, and he implored ways he could further help Be the Match. Dorian’s story came up, and struck a chord with Montgomery. A lot of celebrities and public figures speak on and spread awareness for Be the Match, Bolton explained, but it oftentimes stops there.
Ty Montgomery sprung into action in a way that was unprecedented. He immediately joined the Be the Match registry to serve as a potential donor for Dorian. Earlier this week, Dorian met Montgomery over a Zoom call. During the call, Montgomery took an at-home swab kit and officially joined the Be the Match registry, joining a network of people dedicated to saving lives of people like Dorian.
“When my dad found out about Ty Montgomery, you would have thought they won the Super Bowl,” Dorian said. I spoke with Dorian about the impact athletes can have on challenges like this, and, in particular, how impactful a display of leadership like Montgomery’s can be for minority communities.
“Our community looks up to athletes, so things that athletes promote definitely carry weight in our community,” Dorian said. “The more people we can get active in signing up for this and becoming a donor, the better it is for those in my situation. I can honestly say, within the minority community, leukemia isn’t common. I mean, we don’t talk about it, and I am still personally learning about it, even though I’m over a year and a half into this journey.”
While talking with Dorian’s Be the Match representative, Eric Bolton, I asked him whether there were any misconceptions about the donor process, or other tangible barriers of finding African American donors. Primarily, a lot of the issue is a lack of education and awareness about these types of blood diseases. I’ve seen several medical students address this issue; many of them learned about sickle cell anemia, a disease that disproportionately affects African Americans, for the first time in medical school. If medical students aren’t even learning about these illnesses until their secondary education, it’s quite easy to infer that this is critically under-addressed in minority communities. This makes what Ty Montgomery has done, and the leadership he’s exuded, that much more impactful for spreading awareness.
The biggest concern in the African American community, as explained by Bolton, surrounds the collection of DNA and the potential for misuse. This mistrust stems from historical abuse involving medical research rooted in racism; the Tuskegee Syphilis Study saw hundreds of African American men subjected to treatment for syphilis without their consent under the guise of free health care. Not only did a large portion of participants not have syphilis, but they never actually received the standard penicillin treatment. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who had cancer cells taken without her permission; her family wasn’t informed for more than 20 years after her death, and scientists and drug companies experimented with her cells for decades.
To say these concerns are justified would be an understatement. While historical cases of misuse are vast, I confirmed with Bolton that donor cells are protected under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Under the Act, health insurers and employers cannot use your genetic information, family medical history, DNA or other genetic test results to discriminate against you. There are research safeguards that add an additional level of protection. When you join the registry, your envelope kit is only identified by a number that’s sent to a separate place; only when someone is deemed a match in the registry do the two places coordinate to identify the name of the donor.
There’s also a general misconception about the donation process itself. I myself was ill-informed about the marrow and stem cell donor process; turns out, like most things, what you see in movies and on tv is highly over-dramatized. The first and easiest step is to join the registry.
Anyone ages 18-44 years old can sign up to join the registry by texting SaveDorian to 61474 (not case sensitive) or by visiting https://join.bethematch.org/savedorian and Be The Match will mail a cheek swab kit to their home. You then fill out a brief application, which can be done on your phone in about 3-5 minutes, and do the cheek swab. You swab each cheek for about 10 seconds, put it back in a prepaid envelope, and mail it out. That’s it. After that, you have about a 1 in 430 chance of being called to join the registry. If you happen to get called to be a donor, there are two types of donations: peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC), and bone marrow.
PBSC donations account for 79% of donations. It’s a non-surgical procedure, and is similar to donating platelets. Much like an IV insertion, your blood will be removed through a needle in your arm, and is passed through a machine that extracts blood-forming cells. The remaining blood is returned to your arm; the process takes about two hours, and is relatively non-painful. Bolton shared an anecdote where he recently saw a woman donate while doing her homework, watching Netflix, and eating a bag of chips. You can learn more about the PBSC donation process here.
The donation that Dorian needs is the bone marrow process. While marrow donation is a surgical procedure, it isn’t as scary as you might think. Donors receive anesthesia for this process - which, admittedly, I was unaware of - and the procedure is painless. Doctors will create a small incision on your lower back to extract the marrow, and the procedure takes about 30 minutes to 1 hour in total. You can learn more about the marrow donation process here.
Be The Match covers the entire cost of the transplant for the donor, including flights, hotels, and meals. Be The Match covers all recipient costs that are not covered by insurance.
For now, all Dorian can do is wait. Hopefully, Ty Montgomery ends up being a match for Dorian and can save his life with a bone marrow donation. “Trust and believe that, regardless of if you’re a match, this moment will live with me for the rest of my life,” Dorian told Montgomery over Zoom.
“I’ll take the test. I’ll be the match. I hope I’m the match, man,” Montgomery emotionally responded. Ty Montgomery exemplifies what it truly means to be a New Orleans Saint. Now, it’s Saints fans’ turn to rally around Dorian Price, and the thousands of people diagnosed with life-threatening blood cancers each year. In the words of Sean Payton, it’s time to Do Your Job.