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Breaking Good: Ex-Con reforms, becomes key advocate for bone marrow donation in memory of his son

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By this time he had earned a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and was working toward a master’s degree in humanities, specializing in political philosophy. Midway through his program, Michael wrote a paper on how to improve the prison system. He sent it to his sentencing judge, Superior Court Justice George Pappagianis, who wrote back. “He told me it was the most amazing analysis of the prison system he ever read,” recalls Michael. “Eventually I asked him if he would support my sentence being reduced when I got my master’s degree. He agreed.”

Michael kept his word and so did the judge, successfully lobbying for his sentence reduction. In 2003 Michael walked out of prison a changed man. But Michael was quickly tested with the same challenges that sent his life spiraling out of control. He found the daughter given up for adoption, but she wanted nothing to do with him. “It was too late,” says Michael. “I tried, but it was no good.”

The new Michael did not linger on disappointment. Instead, he began to build a new life. He started a construction company and a new relationship with an old friend, Christina Poulicakos. In 2006, they had a son. “The day little Giovanni was born was the happiest day of my life,” exclaims Michael. “Most people don’t get second chances; Giovanni was mine.”

Michael’s elation was short-lived. His newborn son was vomiting on a daily basis. When Giovanni was diagnosed with NEMO deficiency syndrome, a rare immunodeficiency disease, doctors said he had six months to live unless he received a bone marrow transplant. “I asked them, ‘What are his chances of finding a match?’” recalls Michael. “When they told me, ‘One in 20,000,’ I told them, ‘Fine, I will get 20,000 people to sign up for the registry, and we will get a match.’ I wasn’t going to lose my child again.”

Michael pulled out all the stops, swabbing mouths for DNA everywhere from union halls to motorcycle clubs. He rented billboard space in Boston and New York. He retraced his past to find donors–from former partners in crime to cellmates to people he had wronged in his youth. He even approached Dale Robinson, the SWAT team commander who ordered his death so long ago. The meeting became an opportunity for reconciliation: “I always wanted to apologize but never could,” Michael admits. “Giovanni gave me the courage.”

Not only did Robinson welcome the apology, he agreed to host a donor drive with Michael to save Giovanni. Michael blew well past his goal, finding 16,000 potential donors in a few months. Among them, a match for his son. “That was one of the greatest days of my life,” says Michael. “But I thought, What am I going to do with this force I’ve mobilized? I can’t walk away.”

For the next five years Michael threw himself into two things: being “president and father of Giovanni,” as he describes it, and a “bone marrow donation warrior,” smashing donation records every year and eventually becoming the nation’s single most effective campaigner for donors. “It was redemption,” says Michael.

For a time, life was good. Then Giovanni fell ill again. The boy had several operations, but ultimately he couldn’t be saved. On the night of Greek Orthodox Easter, Michael and his girlfriend rushed Giovanni to the hospital. “When we got there he was having a seizure,” Michael remembers. “Then his heart crashed. He squeezed our fingers, wiggled his toes, then went limp.”

Thousands showed up for Giovanni’s funeral, from Hells Angels and cops to lawyers and ex-cons–even John Lynch, Governor of New Hampshire. The procession was led by law enforcement at the request of Dale Robinson. “I could not believe how this little boy brought people together,” Michael says. “I knew then that I could never stop fighting–to leave a legacy for him by carrying on the fight against blood cancer.”

Today Michael is a donor recruitment consultant for Delete Blood Cancer, the largest bone marrow donor organization in the world. He’s registered 65,000 donors and found more than 210 matches. That’s 210 new leases on life. After all he’s been through, Michael credits his new sense of mission to his son: “Giovanni gave me my ‘why’–my reason for living. And he is the most powerful ‘why’ that I could ever have.”

To find out more about being a bone marrow donor, go to deletebloodcancer.org and tell them Michael Guglielmo sent you.

Click here to watch Michael Guglielmo tell his story in his own words at a TED conference at the University of Massachusetts Amhurst.

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  • TONY

    GREAT AUTHOR…GREAT ARTICLE. SHOWS PEOPLE CAN TURN THEIR LIVES AROUND & SPOTLIGHTS THE NEED FOR PRISON REFORM FROM A PUNISHMENT-FOR-PROFIT ONLY SYSTEM TO A PENAL/REHAB SYSTEM. ALSO SHOWS THE NEED FOR SENTENCE REFORM, ELIMINATING LONG MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCES FOR NON-VIOLENT PERSONAL USE DRUG POSSESSION SITUATIONS. WHO KNOWS, EFFECTIVE POST-INCARCERATION PROGRAMS THAT HELP EX-CONS RE-ENTER SOCIETY, THE JOB MARKET & REBUILD THEIR LIVES CAN BECOME A REALITY!