At 26 years old, Daniel Cox has accomplished more than most.
A Barr-Spach Medicine and Engineering scholar studying both medicine and engineering at Duke, Cox is a triathlete who recently finished his first full Ironman and raised tens of thousands for cancer donor matching.
Cox was a senior in high school when he first heard about Be The Match, an organization that pairs bone-marrow donors with cancer patients in need of a transplant. After writing a speech on Be The Match for a school assignment, he took his interest a step further and signed up to be on the donor registry.
At 19, Cox found out he had been matched to a potential transplant recipient. Eager to help, he volunteered to give a peripheral blood stem cell donation.
Cox said there are a lot of misconceptions about bone marrow transplants and described the process as “really easy.”
“Basically, you have one needle stick in each arm and that’s it,” he said. “And that’s kind of all you do. You just sit there for like, four hours.”
At the time, Cox couldn’t fully comprehend how a few hours of boredom would translate into a new chance at life for someone else, but he soon started exchanging letters with his anonymous match. Regulations prevented them from meeting for the first year after the transplant, and because their personal information was removed from the letters, Cox didn’t know who had received the donation.
Eventually, after both consented, Cox finally met his match: Missy Ginnetti, an Ohio mother battling Hodgkin's Lymphoma. After an emotional phone conversation, the two agreed to meet in person.
They met for lunch in Dayton, Ohio, which was halfway between Cox’s home in Southern Indiana and Ginnetti’s house in Northeast Ohio. At first meeting, the two felt an extraordinarily strong connection.
“To actually see the physical person who’s there because of you, I think that just changed everything for me,” Cox explained.
Missy’s husband Pat Ginnetti was also moved by the experience.
“There’s a part of him that was a part of her, and it’s like we already knew who he was,” he said.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Cox and Missy developed a close friendship, calling one another to talk and organizing fundraisers for Be The Match. They shared stories and plenty of laughs: When Missy suddenly started craving ice cream after the transplant, she joked that he had given her his sweet tooth.
Cox ran his first half-ironman in her honor, and the Ginnetti family cheered him on as he raised money for Be The Match.
Despite the donation, Missy Ginnetti died of a blood clot in 2016.
“She beat the big fight and something unexpected took her,” Pat said.
Grappling with Missy’s passing, Cox decided to train for a full Ironman to honor her memory. Mustering impressive finish times, he was set to qualify for the World Ironman Championship in Kona this year.
He planned to announce his feat at the second Be The Match gala held in Missy’s honor, a collaboration between him and Pat. But the coronavirus pandemic interfered, canceling both the gala and the championship.
Cox improvised, organizing his own race in Durham and setting a fundraising goal of $100,000. On Oct. 10, Cox swam, ran and biked through Durham for 10 hours.
“It speaks volumes about his character that he’s still willing to put his body through tremendous torture to raise awareness, to honor Missy, and to raise money to help other people,” said Pat Ginnetti, who drove all the way to North Carolina to watch Cox cross the finish line.
So far, he’s raised more than $78,000 for Be The Match and is still accepting donations to reach his goal.
As Cox and Pat raise money, they want people to remember Missy’s legacy of compassion and positivity.
“She took her illness as an opportunity to live life to the fullest,” said Pat Ginnetti, who recalled how his wife touched the lives of so many people she met in the hospital. After her transplant, she became a key advocate for Be The Match, dedicated to helping others defeat cancer.
Cox has carried on her mission, working with Congress to secure transplant funding as an ambassador for Be The Match. He encourages anyone considering joining the donor registry to reach out to him or the organization with any concerns.
“It’s definitely a defining moment in my own life, so for other people to get to experience that would be nothing short of incredible,” he said.