Reaching Beyond Himself

Stem cell donor James Hoogstraten becomes the latest Colbian to potentially save someone’s life

James Hoogstraten ’25 is the fifth Colbian who has been matched with and donated stem cells to someone with blood cancer through the organization Be the Match.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Gregory A. Rec
November 6, 2023

In football, James Hoogstraten ’25 has grit. In academics, focus. And in life, heart.

These attributes gelled when he donated stem cells to an anonymous person battling blood cancer earlier this year. “I happened to be the lucky one,” Hoogstraten said about being matched with someone in need, a process facilitated by the donor registry organization Be the Match.

“Lucky” because he was 100 percent in the game when called.

Four months earlier, his best friend from high school was diagnosed with leukemia. Around the same time, his best friend at Colby, Tyler Mueller ’25, donated stem cells through Be the Match. If anyone was all in, it was Hoogstraten, a psychology major and classic civilization minor from Glen Mills, Pa.

As a first-year student, Hoogstraten joined the Be the Match registry through its Get in the Game program for college athletes at the Colby football team’s annual donor drive on campus. All it took was a cheek swab to collect a DNA sample. A match came two years later.

“He’s kind of an unsung hero. He plays offensive line and doesn’t get a lot of attention,” said Assistant Football Coach Tom Dexter. “But he got the respect of everybody big time by doing what he did.”

According to privacy rules, Hoogstraten must wait a year to contact the recipient of his stem cells. He’s eager for that moment, wanting to know how the donation went and if it saved that person’s life. “What I’m hoping for,” he said, “is that they are joining my friend in remission right now.”

The Mules’ winning streak

Hoogstraten is the fifth Colbian to be matched and follow through with a donation, joining Sam Kelly ’20, Charlie Morris ’22, Tyler Mueller ’25, and an anonymous student. Given that Colby has hosted five donor drives on campus since 2018, it’s a remarkable number of matches relative to the 768 students who have registered and completed a cheek swab.

Colby’s participation in Get in the Game is exemplary, said Ann Evans, an account manager with Be the Match who works with the football team on its donor drives. Support from the coaches is “incredible,” she said. Colby has also expanded participation to other teams, including field hockey, swimming and diving, and men’s ice hockey. “That’s unique. Not every campus can pull in other teams to help.”

James Hoogstraten ’25 is an offensive lineman for the Colby football team and became a donor after submitting a cheek swab during the team’s annual donor drive through Be the Match and its Get in the Game program.

Operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, Be the Match has for 35 years coordinated a registry for patients facing life-threatening blood cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma, and sickle cell disease. For these patients, a cure exists through a stem cell, bone marrow, or cord blood transplant, yet only 29 to 79 percent of patients find their match, depending on their ethnic background. 

Jack Cosgrove, the inaugural Dick McGee Head Coach for Colby Football, brought the initiative to Colby in 2018 from the University of Maine, where he previously coached. His son was matched and donated through the program, so he speaks from experience when talking to Colby players about participating.

Cosgrove has also been pivotal in encouraging participation in football programs at other NESCAC schools, notably Tufts and Middlebury. This coming spring, Evans anticipates that all of the NESCAC schools will participate in Get in the Game, something no other league in the nation can boast.

Each year, the donor drives at Colby expand, thanks to students’ enthusiasm and Cosgrove’s mission of community service. “We’ve had some success with matches,” said Dexter. “So that builds upon more success.”

A new perspective on life

When he received the news that he was matched, Hoogstraten knew what to expect because of his friendship with Mueller, a previous donor. Still, he had emotions to work through.

“Having a friend that’s personally going through a bad situation such as leukemia, it gives you a more sense of mortality itself that, you know, everything in life isn’t guaranteed.” He talked through his feelings with Michael Buccigrossi, a visiting assistant professor of psychology and instructor of the Health Psychology course he took last spring. The course helped him “see a new perspective on life and bring more awareness to my sensations,” said Hoogstraten, who plans to be a therapist or psychiatrist. 

Helping the organization Be the Match encourages the players to “reach beyond themselves,” which is the ultimate goal of developing young men.

Tom Dexter, Assistant Football Coach

“He’s a great guy with a heart the size of Texas,” said Buccigrossi. ”In my courses, his thoughtful consideration of the course material and dedication to his assignments was absolutely above and beyond all expectations.” 

During office hours, student and professor talked about the stem cell donation. “His sincerity, compassion, and altruism are remarkable,” said Buccigrossi. “We should all be more like James; the world would be a better place.”  

Part of the big picture

On each of the three days before his donation, Hoogstraten received the drug filgrastim at a local hospital to increase his white blood cell count. On a Thursday in spring 2023, his roommate and teammate, Ben Entner ’25, drove him to a blood center in Providence, R.I., for the procedure, a simple, noninvasive, automated blood donation that separates stem cells from the blood via a centrifuge. His donation took just a couple of hours. The time commitment was minimal; he was back in classes the next day.

Evans emphasized that 90 percent of donations are peripheral blood stem cell, or PBSC, donations that are straightforward, painless procedures performed in blood centers. Be the Match covers all expenses associated with donations, so there are no out-of-pocket costs for donors or their companions.

As his donation companion, Entner was just one person in Hoogstraten’s larger support network. “It shows the resources of this community,” coach Dexter noted. “They are truly student athletes. They forge bonds with their professors and administrators that help them along the way, just as much as their coaches.”

Participating in the Be the Match program allows the football team to have “a little part in the big picture,” said Dexter. While the team celebrates family and football events together, they’re always discussing the big picture. Helping the organization encourages the players to reach beyond themselves, which is the ultimate goal of developing young men, Dexter said. “You have to broaden their horizons.”

That wider perspective has transformed Hoogstraten’s life. “You have to just live in the moment. Try to be as into the moment as much as you can, you know, and not take anything for granted.”