By guest contributor and TEDMED 2015 Speaker Seun Adebiyi
I’m training to represent Nigeria – whose tropical climate has never seen a flake of snow – as its first ever Winter Olympic athlete.
Without any sponsors, I work as an airline baggage handler to cover my training expenses. The guy with a Yale Law degree on his knees in the belly of a Boeing 737 stacking suitcases? Yeah, that’s me. It might sound crazy, but as a first-generation immigrant who grew up beneath the poverty line with a single black mom in rural Alabama, I’m no stranger to humble work. We were so poor that even the kids from the projects made fun of my clothing and haircuts (courtesy of my mom and a pair of scissors). I eventually learned to compensate for my inferiority complex by winning…at all costs.
By the time I was 14, I was ranked 4th in the United States for my age group in swimming. I had broken the Nigerian record in the 200 meter freestyle and was on track to compete in the 2000 Olympic Games. Three months before the opening ceremonies, I became paralyzed from the waist down in a training accident. Without the validation of athletic success to prop up my self-esteem, I went into a vicious tailspin that took me down a dark alley of drugs, alcohol and attempted suicide. I didn’t snap out of it until my college roommate blew his head off with a shotgun.
Searching for a reason to live, I began training for the 2004 Olympics with the club team at the University of Pittsburgh. I dropped 75 pounds in nine months, only to miss the Olympic “B” qualifying time by one tenth of a second. In my third year at Yale Law School, I decided to give the Olympics another shot, this time in a high-speed, high-risk winter sport called the skeleton: like the luge, but headfirst. Nigeria had never been to the Winter Olympics in any sport, and I’d never tried the skeleton before.
Sound like long odds? That’s not even the half of it. One week after my 26th birthday – and eight months out from the 2010 Winter Olympics – I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and myeloproliferative disorder. Only a bone marrow transplant could save my life, but as an African-American, my odds of finding a compatible donor were less than 17%. Suddenly the improbable seemed impossible.
With only months to live, I partnered with the world’s largest non-profit bone marrow donor organization, Delete Blood Cancer (DKMS), to recruit over 10,000 new donors and hold the first-ever bone marrow donor drive in Nigeria. I chose Nigeria for two reasons. First, my odds of finding a match were highest in my own ethnic group. Second, blacks are underrepresented in the international donor pool, a key hurdle that keeps thousands of minority patients from finding a genetically compatible donor. Nigeria is the most populous and genetically diverse country in Africa, so their donors could potentially help millions around the world. It made sense for me, and it made sense for others.
However, as luck would have it, on the day of my flight to Lagos, I found a match in the U.S. It was literally the biggest lottery win of my life! But there was a catch: doing the transplant would mean postponing my trip to Nigeria. I had to decide which was more important: saving my own life or holding a drive that would one day save the lives of others?
This was the moment of truth. I knew my decision in that moment would shape my character forever. That was when I finally broke free of the inferiority complex that had shackled me to the mindset of “winning at all costs.” For perhaps the first time in my life, I saw with clarity that success is not measured by wealth, prestige, and accolades, but by one’s impact on the lives of others. Against doctor’s orders, I boarded the plane to Lagos, signing up over 300 donors in a single afternoon. Then I had my transplant and have been cancer free for six years.
Everything changed after that. I left my prestigious job on Wall Street to launch the first Bone Marrow Donors Registry in Nigeria (BMRN) in 2012. Two years later, I partnered with the American Cancer Society to develop the Global Scholars Program, which mentors and financially supports young professionals from developing countries to become effective cancer advocates in their communities.
My next goal is to build a pan-African bone marrow donor registry and cord blood bank, so that patients just like me can have a second chance at life. I also still dream of carrying the Nigerian flag in the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics one day. We all have a choice to pursue our dreams. It’s never too late to start, and it’s always worth it. Break through, and live free!
In his TEDMED talk, cancer survivor and Olympic hopeful Seun Adebiyi astounds us with stories from his quest to conquer the impossible – and what he has learned about himself along the way.