At World Cafe Live, a good deed yields unexpected reward

Chris Grova , a stem-cell donor and a fan, with a signed guitar. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Chris Grova , a stem-cell donor and a fan, with a signed guitar. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 11, 2014

In July, Chris Grova donated stem cells in hopes that a patient with blood cancer would live. He couldn't have known that by giving, he'd end up getting an opportunity to share a song with a musical hero.

Grova, 50, was invited onstage at Philadelphia's World Cafe Live on Wednesday to play guitar with the Alarm. The anthemic Welsh band's leader, Mike Peters, is a leukemia survivor who received stem cells through a bone-marrow transplant a decade ago.

"I've been a fan for 30 years," Grova says. "I've always followed what Mike's been up to."

Peters is the cofounder of the Love Hope Strength Foundation. The nonprofit holds mountain-climbing fund-raisers nationwide and recruits potential donors at venues, such as concerts, where they can sign up and have a cheek swab taken.

Grova did so at the Alarm's Sept. 10, 2009, concert in Philly. He's given blood for years, became aware of stem-cell donation through the foundation, and sees it as another chance "to do the right thing for someone else."

A modest, soft-spoken fellow who's an information-technology specialist at Independence Blue Cross, Grova grew up in one-square-mile Newfield, Gloucester County. His father was a mail carrier, and his mother worked as an administrative assistant at a local hospital.

By age 12, and already a Beatles/Stones fan, he started playing guitar. He was in bands as a Delsea Regional High School student (Class of '82) and performed for years with Gene Fiducia, of Voorhees, as a duo called the Gunners. He continues to make music for his own enjoyment.

"This is my main guitar," says Grova, sitting on the couch and strumming an ivory-colored Washburn Woodstock acoustic electric that he played with Peters (who autographed it before the show).

We're chatting in the home Grova shares with his wife, Marla Cimini. A freelance writer, she grew up in Southwest Philly; the couple met in 1995 at a Manayunk club where the Gunners were performing.

"Thank God we liked the same music," jokes Cimini, who also signed up to be a stem-cell donor but hasn't yet been matched.

Thousands waiting

"It's really rare that you get a match," Katie Poppert, the foundation's national "get-on-the-list" director, says from Denver. "There are thousands of people waiting."

In early July, Grova was notified that a match had been made. Three weeks ago, he and Cimini went to Manhattan, where he underwent a six-hour outpatient procedure called apheresis.

The process harvests stem cells, which are produced by bone marrow, from the blood circulating in the body. The procedure is less invasive than standard bone-marrow extraction.

"People think donation is horrific, but it's a lot easier than it used to be," notes Poppert.

"It took a little bit out of me," Grova says. "But I bounced back the next day."

He and Cimini say they won't forget watching as his donation was placed in a cooler and prepared for transport to a waiting recipient. "It made it all seem worthwhile," Cimini recalls.

About 10 days ago, they bought tickets for the World Cafe concert by the Alarm. Peters learned of Grova's donation through Facebook, and invited him to "bring his guitar" to the show.

They met backstage and rehearsed "for about 30 seconds," Grova says.

"I was, I guess, a little nervous," he adds. "But Mike is such a cool guy, and made me feel so at ease."

Grova accompanied a solo Peters on two songs, including "Love Hope and Strength," the foundation's anthem.

"It was powerful to be next to a performer like Mike Peters, and in a way, tell both our stories," Grova says.

"Chris looks amazing on stage," says Cimini. "He's my rock star."

And to his donation recipient, Grova could well be all that, and then some.

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