In April 2016, Tim Thompson and Ashley Leecy were thrilled to add Tristan to their family of three. Tristan made the perfect complement to older brother Trevor, and while he was fragile and prone to illness as a newborn, all seemed normal until he was six months old. Unbeknownst to them, Tristan and his family were about to embark on a journey they never could have imagined.
After multiple hospital visits and mounting frustrations as they worked to find out what was plaguing him, Tristan was finally diagnosed with Bridges-Good Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder also referred to as Chronic Granulomatous Disease (CGD). CGD is a genetically inherited disease that comprises about 20 new diagnoses each year in the United States. The disease makes a critical part of one’s immune system nonfunctioning, and most patients do not live past the age of 25.
Tim and Ashley clearly remember the despair that came over them when faced with the truth that Tristan’s life had taken a drastic turn. After consulting with their local hospital and conducting research of their own, Tim and Ashley learned about the advanced stem cell and bone marrow transplants run by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Despite the 300+ miles separating CHOP from the family’s home in Rochester, New York, they knew this could be Tristan’s only chance at a normal life.
The Thompson family made the decision to undergo a bone marrow transplant just six months after Tristan’s diagnosis, knowing full well that he would need 10 days of rigorous chemotherapy just to give his new immune system its best chance at thriving. Within two days, a perfect 10/10 match was found in Bob Byers, a high school football coach living over 500 miles away in Niles, a small town in Michigan just north of South Bend.
Bob joined the Be the Match Registry after his wife Becki had been diagnosed with and beaten cancer on two occasions, and his donation to Tristan marks his second since that fateful registration. Bob recalls landing at Midway Airport in Chicago to a barrage of missed calls from Be the Match, who notified him that he was the only match in the entire country for a little one-and-a-half year old boy. He remembers it as a moment of sheer terror shared by him and Becki, as parents themselves, on behalf of this family.
The Thompson family was hit with yet another surprise when Bob’s identity was finally revealed one year after the transplant. Despite not knowing who the recipient of Bob’s stem cells was, Tristan had been honored as the honorary captain before every home football game at John Adams High School all the way in South Bend, Indiana.
Bob’s players even voiced their support for Tristan in the time leading up to the meeting, with key offensive members Ira Armstead and Jackson Joyce telling media that “[Tristan’s] one of us. He’s a part of the team”. Beyond naming Tristan an honorary captain, the team even sent a signed jersey with a video of them cheering Tristan on, while Bob sent his “little brother” a stuffed penguin with a get well note.
Bob easily refers to Tristan as his little brother now that they share the same blood type, and even all of Bob’s allergies. Bob says the meeting was like a dream, as he could have never imagined meeting this new brother in real life.
Tristan’s mom, Ashley, looks back at the entire experience as one that’s served to reset everyone to the key values of life. “There’s just so much perspective with this in our lives. The rest is just noise. I mean, this is real, this is important, and this is what it’s about.”
In the months leading up to this meeting, Ashley remembers anticipating much ugly crying on her end. After waiting a year and a half to meet the man that saved her son’s life, she wanted to show her thanks and give Bob a bone-crushing hug. Southwest was glad to catch a glimpse of this emotional encounter.