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Stranger who said 'I do' to stem cell donation honoured at wedding

Date

Heath Gilmore

Few knew the stolid, bearded wedding guest. Yet everyone knew of his gift.

As newly married Michael Faust and Jackie Antico strode off an old loading deck at the Jones Bay Wharf at Pyrmont late on Thursday, family members gathered around the just vacated four-poster chuppah, the canopy under which a couple stand during a Jewish wedding ceremony.

The father of the groom, Warren Faust, strode across to the bearded guest, specially placed in the front row. With two hands, he grabbed the man by the arm and held his gaze. Then he kissed Texan Michael Striegold, 38, on the cheek – the wedding guest who gave his son a second chance at life.

Ten years earlier, young tennis player Michael Faust, then 23, was told in Sydney he had leukaemia with little chance of a cure. None of his grief-stricken eastern suburbs family was a matching stem cell donor. In this situation, a patient with his Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, one of the most aggressive forms of the disease, needed a lottery-like win to survive.

"I was totally devastated that someone my age could be diagnosed with cancer," he said. "Coming back from the United States, I was on a tennis scholarship and extremely fit and healthy. All my friends and family were in shock that someone like me could be diagnosed with leukaemia."

At that lowest time for the Faust family, Mr Striegold unknowingly made a jackpot decision.

Across the Pacific Ocean, at a Jewish event in San Francisco, he decided to test for the Gift of Life registry, an organisation dedicated to the life-saving potential of stem cell, bone marrow and cord blood transplants by increasing the representation of Jewish donors.

"I don't know why, but I had a feeling that I was meant to be on that registry," Mr Striegold said. "I forgot about it but, six months later, I was on a hospital bed at Stanford Cancer Centre [at California], having my stem cells harvested."

Tissue type is inherited. A patient's best chance of finding a genetic match lies with those in their immediate family or similar ethnic ancestry. Patients with a Jewish heritage are more likely to find a match with someone of a similar background.

Mr Striegold walked away from his hospital bed without knowing the identity of the recipient or treatment outcome.

Eighteen months later, Michael Faust wrote asking to meet the man who saved his life.

Shula Endrey-Walder, the Australian founder of Gift of Life, said the two men and their families met at a charity fund-raiser in New York.

"There were 800 people in the room that night," she said. "And there was not a dry eye.

"Now they meet up every year at the Gift of Life gala and spend a week together."

Earlier this week, the Faust family flew the Texan to Australia for the first time. They wanted him in the front row of the wedding.

"It's been very important to me to be here," Mr Striegold said after the ceremony. "I could see how I helped someone in life. For me, a stranger, to have a second family is overwhelming."

Mr Faust, now cured, succinctly summed up his appreciation of the man whose DNA is part of his body.

"I now have another brother," he said. 

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