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Retired first responder from Bethpage gets life-saving stem cell transplant after hundreds volunteer to donate

Retired FDNY firefighter Brian Kevan of Bethpage

Retired FDNY firefighter Brian Kevan of Bethpage Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Retired FDNY firefighter Brian Kevan had dreamed of this moment but could hardly process its magnitude.

After years of agonizing treatments to drive his cancer into remission, only to see it return with a fury — followed by a monthslong search for a donor lifeline — doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan delivered the news that would change the Bethpage first responder's life.

A bone marrow match had been found and the stem cells were on the way. It was time to begin prepping for transplant. "I was ecstatic but probably in shock," Kevan, 52, said Tuesday, five days removed from the procedure. "I could finally breathe a sigh of relief."

While Kevan's family launched a widespread search for a compatible match, the donor was ultimately a yet-unidentified 26-year-old man not associated with his search who submitted his sample into a global registry.

"This kid is my hero," Kevan said of the donor. "He stepped up to the plate selflessly and donated to save my life without knowing me. He just knew it was the right thing to do. And for everyone else that stepped up, they made an amazing commitment to put themselves second to someone in need. I hope that some of the people we brought in are matches going down the road."

Kevan's story is a classic New York tale of heroics and compassion for both the stem cell recipient, who served the city on its darkest day, and for hundreds of Long Islanders who returned the favor and volunteered to see if they could be a potential lifesaving donor.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Kevan, assigned to Engine 221/Ladder 104 in Williamsburg, was off-duty but raced to the World Trade Center. He would spend four months searching the rubble at Ground Zero.

In 2019, Kevan was diagnosed with lymphoma linked to the toxic dust in lower Manhattan and was forced to retire after 20 years on the job.

The Island Trees High School graduate spent the next two years trying every available option to fight the cancer, including countless chemotherapy cocktails that left him weakened.

Doctors then harvested Kevan's own healthy stem cells and implanted them back into his system after first flushing out his immune system with more chemotherapy. Each time the cancer would go into remission only to return again.

Kevan was running out of options. He signed up for a clinical trial with a powerful chemotherapy treatment, trying to buy enough time to find a donor match.

But the move was risky. Kevan's immune system was severely weakened and if the cancer came out of remission he wouldn't be eligible for a stem cell transplant.

"My doctor said, 'if we come out remission right now, we're standing on the freeway with no way to get off,'" he said.

That's when New Yorkers sprang into action.

Fire departments from across the state, from Islip to Yonkers, and friends from as far as Las Vegas, held donation drives. More than 220 friends, colleagues and strangers had the inside of their cheeks swabbed to test for donor compatibility.

"It's a testament to the kind of guy he is. The way he's lived his life and carried himself," said Brian's sister, Kristen Kevan, of Oakdale, who helped organize the donation drives. "And when you attach the FDNY name to someone, it's an honorable thing … That helped push it forward. It's a community like no other."

On Nov. 4, after five days of chemotherapy and radiation to strip the bone marrow and immune system to its core, and kill residual cancer cells, Kevan finally sat down for his transplant, which was conducted intravenously.

He left the hospital that evening — COVID-19 protocols made remaining at Sloan Kettering too risky — but returns each morning for testing and monitoring.

Kevan, who's finally feeling healthy and optimistic for the future, said he will reach out to the donor after the mandatory yearlong waiting period.

In the interim, Kevan has more figurative mountains to climb.

Doctors warned him of potentially serious side effects from the transplant that will begin in the coming days, from colitis to skin rashes to pneumonia — symptoms that could last up to a year.

"I'm realistic that I'm not going to dodge all those bullets," he said. "But I am going to face them head-on and be as strong as I can and get through them. There's a finish line and I need to get there."

With Cecilia Dowd

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