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A Warrior’s selfless gift: Lance Pekus meets blood stem cell recipient

Lance Pekus doesn’t remember exactly why he swabbed his cheek and joined the NMDP Registry in 2016—he just knows the decision has changed his life. The man known as the “Cowboy Ninja Warrior,” a fan favorite on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, was called upon to make a selfless decision that would give a woman battling leukemia a second chance at life.  

In 2020, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, Lance was working at his family’s cattle ranch in Idaho when he received a call from NMDP. He was told he was a potential match for a 35-year-old woman in need of a blood stem cell transplant. 

Not being familiar with what blood stem cell donation would require, Lance admits he was intrigued, but also somewhat concerned. His first goal was to learn more about the patient—but donation is an anonymous process, and he was only told the 35-year-old woman was fighting leukemia. 

His thoughts quickly turned to his wife and children. Lance and his family have had their fair share of health struggles. His wife, Heather, has multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that has left her wheelchair bound. He has two young children, and he wanted to make sure that donating blood stem cells was safe, would not have any long-term effects on his health and that he wouldn’t incur any medical expenses.

Lance was surprised to learn that blood stem cell donation is a non-surgical procedure resembling a platelet or plasma donation. And NMDP would cover all expenses related to the donation process—he just needed to travel to the nearest donation center in Boise, Idaho. 

“NMDP handled everything,” Lance said. “Nothing was out of my pocket and they eased my concerns about the donation process itself—it was quick and easy, in and out the same day.” 

For Lance, a man who inspires millions of viewers with his amazing athleticism, the most important outcome of the day was the chance to give hope to someone in need.  

“I would do it again,” he said. “It was pain free and easy and rewarding—it’s just an exciting feeling to know you can give someone extra time to live and enjoy life.”  

A Mom Fighting for Her Life 

Ashley Arter, a mom of two from Quanah, Texas, found out she had leukemia on her birthday in December 2019. A thrombosis, or blood clot, led to severe headaches that led her to the ER twice in one week begging doctors to help her (after initially being sent home and told she had a migraine). She would suffer 8 strokes over a year and a half and had a gallon of fluid on her left lung before the diagnosis came—acute myeloid leukemia. She said she nearly died three times only to find out that her leukemia was aggressive and she would need a blood stem cell transplant from a matching donor to give her the best chance at a cure.  

Her brother was only a 50% match, but Lance was considered a fully matched donor, matching 12 of 12 HLA markers.

“When I was going through it all I was ready to just give up,” Ashley said. “I didn’t have any life left in me. But my dad kept telling me he can’t live without me and I needed to stay strong for my kids and for him.”

Ashley’s transplant was a success. After months of chemotherapy and cancer claiming her ability to walk, sew (her favorite pastime) or work in the yard at her home, Ashley’s health has since rebounded with the help of Lance’s donated blood stem cells. 

“I waited a little over a year to find out who my donor was,” Ashley said. “I’m so thankful for Lance. He saved my life. I can actually walk again now that everything is over. I look forward to the future, to being able to spend more time with my kids, to keep raising them and see them go to college. I’m glad I have all of that back.” 

Lance flew to meet Ashley in her hometown of Quanah, Texas, a small town known for cattle ranches, just like Lance’s current town. When Lance walked through the door of a local restaurant, The Medicine Mound Depot Restaurant, Ashley leapt to her feet and met him with a big hug and a wide smile. Ashley explained she’s been ahead of schedule on her recovery. The two spent the day together getting to know each other, enjoyed some sightseeing and met each other’s families.   

“You’re a fighter,” Lance told her. “To be able to fight through so much and be sitting here with me today is just amazing, and for me to help that in any way, I’m just honored.”  

Watch their meeting as shown on NBC’s America’s Ninja Warrior.

If you are between the ages of 18-40 years old and would like to join the registry, visit our registration page.