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Liberty News

Professor donates stem cells to help brother fight cancer

April 16, 2012 : Mitzi Bible/Liberty University News Service

Many of us remain close to our siblings in adulthood, seeing each other through life’s ups and downs. But for Dr. Don Hicks, director of The Center for Church Relations and Church Health at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, and his brother Billy, the relationship couldn’t be closer – they share the same blood and the same immune system. That’s because Don donated his stem cells to his brother last year after discovering he was Billy’s only chance at surviving leukemia.

Billy, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., with his wife and three children (two in high school and one in college), had battled the cancer for five years, but the side effects from medications that were helping to keep it in check were too severe. In January 2011, he was given one year to live without a stem cell transplant, the only known cure for the cancer.

Dr. Don Hicks, right, with his brother, Billy

After Don underwent eight months of tests and physical exams to determine if he was the perfect match, including three trips to Nashville, Tenn., his stem cells were harvested through his blood (a more preferred method to bone marrow transplants in the past) and the procedure took place in August 2011.

“He did this because he loves me very much. We’ve always been close, and he would do anything for me,” Billy said.

The decision did not come without some risk – the brothers knew there was a chance Don’s stem cells would attack Billy’s body (called “graft-versus-host disease”) and lead to serious health issues or death.

“It was hard for me to deal with the fact that my stem cells could kill him or cure him,” Don wrote in an update to family and friends before the transplant. “Billy helped me by saying, ‘I have no other choice. I am willing to receive your stem cells and trust God.’ Joking, he said, ‘I will not have you arrested for your stem cells killing me!’”

Joking is one way the brothers have gotten through the tough months after the transplant. Billy’s body did fight back against Don’s stem cells and he has spent months in the hospital, having lost 80 pounds and remaining very weak. He takes up to 23 pills and has five shots a day.

But prayer has been the best way they have found to cope. Don, also an assistant professor of pastoral leadership and homiletics at LBTS, has mobilized an army of prayer warriors – more than 3,500 people have been receiving his email updates and now follow Billy’s progress on caringbridge.org.

“I received Christmas cards from people I didn’t even know, telling me they are praying for me,” Billy said. “That’s amazing.”

Many of those have come from the Liberty family. Faculty, staff and students have been offering prayers and notes of encouragement.

Don addressed the student body in Monday’s convocation, briefly sharing his brother’s story and presenting an "action plan" for the university to participate in ministry to those with cancer.

He told the students he had prayed for healing for his brother for many years, but didn't know God's plan was for him to be a part of the process.

"I never thought in five years of praying for him that I carried within my body the stem cells that would be a healing power in his life," Don said on Monday. "My friend, you have within your body stem cells that could be a healing for someone else."

In January, Don received the news that his brother has been cured of leukemia. The brothers now have the same blood type and the same immune system. Doctors are hopeful Billy will be able to fight the graft-versus-host disease and leave the hospital this summer.

Also at Monday's convocation, Don introduced representatives from the Virginia chapter of The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society who were on campus to meet with him and members of the administration to pursue ways the university can raise awareness for the cancer and for research and donor opportunities as well as train students to minister to families and caregivers dealing with cancer. The organization has never done an event for a college campus and Don is hoping Liberty will be the first to host an event, kicking off in September, which is National Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness Month.

Don, a 1981 graduate of Liberty who earned his Doctor of Ministry from LBTS, has been in ministry 35 years, with over 20 years as a senior pastor, transitional pastor, church planter, and church consultant. During the last 14 years he has consulted, encouraged and ministered to more than 5,000 pastors who have experienced personal and professional crises including forced termination from their church as well as to more than 200 churches.

Don returned to Liberty in November 2007. He and his wife Tricia, an office administrator for the Liberty Church Planting Network, have three children. Two are Liberty graduates (one is continuing his studies at Liberty University School of Law) and one is a senior.

Don said he has been able to use the illustration of cancer in his talks to churches, showing how a body of believers together can fight a circumstance that leads the church to become unhealthy.

He said discovering the complexities of the human body through this experience have left him in more awe of the Creator.

“In conversations with the doctors and studying the blood and seeing how stem cells can bring healing to someone’s body, it amazes me, humbles me, and brings me to my knees in praise to the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords for the great things He has done,” he said.

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