From left to right: Richard Stone, a doctor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, poses with Peter Karalekas (center), 76, and Matthew Churitch, 22. Churitch donated stem cells to Karalekas two years ago, and he visited Dana-Farber with Karalekas earlier this summer. (Courtesy photo)
BOSTON -- After winding his way through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine for 76 years, Peter Karalekas has a proclamation: He's a Southerner now.
He still lives in Kittery, Maine, just about an hour from the Lowell middle school where he taught for 21 years.
He has no plans to move.
Rather, Karalekas considers himself a Southerner because of his stem cells.
He never exactly felt all that sick.
Karalekas worked tirelessly for decades, first as a teacher and coach at the James S. Daley Middle School in Lowell and then as the owner of a half-dozen T-Bones restaurants across New Hampshire.
Even despite the 12-hour days, seven days a week, in the grind of the restaurant industry, Karalekas felt healthy and rarely fell ill.
Peter Karalekas, left, a 76-year-old former Lowellian, smiles during his first meeting with Matthew Churitch, 22, of Nashville, Tennessee, who helped save Karalekas life by donating stem cells. (Courtesy photo)
The two, who do not have children, moved to Kittery 17 years ago.
Everything started to change in 2014.
Karalekas recalls being "short-winded," but he had very few other symptoms when he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare type of cancer in which the bone marrow is damaged and cannot produce enough blood cells.
The prognosis was not good.
"They said the only thing that would save me was a stem cell transplant," Karalekas said. "Otherwise, I had a couple of months to live, because my cells were all dropping drastically.
He went onto a registry, hoping for a donor to pop up, but doctors told him it could take from six months to two years to find the right match. Even with a transplant, Karalekas said, his chances of success were "30 to 40 percent."
The call came four weeks later.
Matthew Churitch got his call quickly, too.
He joined the National Marrow Donor Program's Be the Match Registry in 2014, the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at Clemson University. His mother had been on the registry to donate for years. Churitch's decision was simple: When a friend was diagnosed with leukemia, he knew he should sign up, too.
He did the requisite cheek swab, unsure if he would ever even be contacted to donate. By the time he had finished the following semester, he got the call.
A match was found.
Churitch went through several more levels of testing and preparation to donate stem cells to a stranger. He went to Clemson's student health center to have blood drawn.
He returned to his native Nashville, Tennessee, going to a medical center 10 days in a row to receive shots in his stomach that would stimulate his bone marrow and prepare his cells for transplant.
He sat for eight hours, a needle in each arm as his stem cells were filtered out so they could be transferred to Boston.
"Getting the shots isn't fun," he said. "You're pretty sore afterward for a few weeks. But knowing that the person on the other end is in hundreds and hundreds times more pain than any donor would ever go through -- that kind of pushed me through."
Karalekas and Churitch first connected via an anonymous letter, per the transplant registry's rules, updating Churitch on Karalekas's lengthy, isolated recovery. They were able to speak directly after a year.
Churitch dialed Karalekas' number on a lengthy walk to class, took a deep breath and hit the call button. Moments later, both men were crying and laughing.
"That was really awesome, just being able to hear his voice and recognize that there's somebody else on the other end of this," Churitch said. "A lot of people don't get the chance to connect with their recipients or their donors."
Karalekas wanted more. He told his wife early on that he wanted to meet his "angel from heaven," so when Churitch graduated Clemson earlier this year, Karalekas paid to bring the 22-year-old and his mother to New England.
In late June, Karalekas and his wife pulled into a pickup lane at Logan International Airport in Boston.
"I got out of the car, I charged over, and I gave them both a huge hug," Karalekas said.
Karalekas showed Churitch and his mother around for five days.They went on a private tour of Fenway Park; they wandered the historic streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire; they visited Dana-Farber together to meet the team that treated Karalekas.
Both families quickly bonded. Karalekas recalls his brother George asking Churitch about his portable phone charger, expressing curiosity about how convenient it was. A few weeks later, a brand-new portable charger arrived at George's door, a gift from Churitch.
In January, Karalekas and his wife will vacation in Arizona and will cheer on Churitch's mother -- without Churitch even present -- in the Phoenix Marathon.
Donor and recipient talk every week.
"It's like we're a very, very close-knit family now," Karalekas said. "He's the son we never had."
Churitch is now in his first year at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville with hopes of becoming a physician. He hopes to use Karalekas's experience as inspiration for any patients facing future hardship, and he hopes that others, especially young people, will see their success and join the registry.
"You never know where that will take you," he said. "You can gain a friend for life, impact somebody and their family in need."
Karalekas said he feels he has a new life: His chances of beating the disease are now 97 percent, he says, up from the 30 percent or 40 percent when he started treatment. Thanks to the transplant from a handsome, athletic college student in Tennessee.
"I said, 'I'm a Southerner now,'" Karalekas said. "My stem cells are 99 percent this gentleman. I'm 99 percent him."
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.
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