Thom Filicia Recalls Giving Brother Life-Saving Bone Marrow Transplant: 'He Was on the Brink'

"I didn't hesitate to help," Thom Filicia tells PEOPLE about the procedure, which inspired him to raise money for the Bone Marrow Foundation while competing on RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race

MAPLEWOOD, NEW JERSEY - MAY 05: Designer Thom Filicia attends a book signing for "American Beauty Renovating and Decorating a Beloved Retreat" at the Maplewood Country Club on May 5, 2022 in Maplewood, New Jersey. (Photo by Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images)
Photo: Mark Sagliocco/Getty

Thom Filicia took a step away from interior designing to try drag on for size, competing on the second season of RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race.

But while the experience was a chance for him to reunite with his Queer Eye for the Straight Guy costar Carson Kressley, Filicia tells PEOPLE he was really thrilled the show helped him raise $5,000 for the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation — something dear to his heart as nearly 10 years prior, he saved his older brother's life with a transplant.

"My brother was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, an uncommon type of bone marrow cancer," Filicia, 53, explains exclusively, after being eliminated from the VH1 competition show on last Friday's episode. "He was out in the Hamptons, paddle boarding with one of his two daughters, cut his foot, and the next thing you knew he was in the hospital because it wouldn't stop bleeding. It was there that he learned he was sick."

Myelofibrosis, according to the Mayo Clinic, "causes extensive scarring in your bone marrow" that "disrupts your body's normal production of blood cells." It is considered a chronic leukemia, and can lead to an increased risk of bleeding, severe anemia and an enlarged spleen.

Among the treatment options is a bone marrow transplant, in which doctors replace one's diseased bone marrow using healthy blood stem cells.

Finding a match can be difficult, but Filicia's brother was lucky. "Within three weeks, I was identified as his bone marrow donor — which is very unlikely to find a family member who is a match —and I was an exact match, which is even more unlikely," Filicia recalls. "So we went on that journey together."

"He was on the brink of his final days if this didn't go well, and I didn't hesitate to help," Filicia adds. "My brother is an amazing man. He has a wife, two daughters — he had a lot of reasons to live. And anything I could do, I was glad to do."

Nearly 10 years later, Filicia's brother is healthy, and the two are as close as ever. "He lives in New York City and has a house in the Hamptons, so we see one another often," Filicia says. "We went on that journey together, and it'll forever bond us."

Filica now proudly supports the Bone Marrow Foundation. "They help bring awareness to not only the need for donors but also the advances in medical research so these transfers can actually happen, and successfully," the Emmy winner tells PEOPLE. "Every year, the success rates are going up. And I want people to know that if you're a donor, you can save a life."

Dressing in drag might not be the obvious choice to inspire donors, but Filicia says it's all about getting out of one's comfort zone.

"I really knew nothing about drag going into this," Filicia says. "I thought it would be like playing dress up, but it was so much more beyond that. I was in awe of the craft — the amount of creativity involved in it, from the wardrobe to the wigs to the makeup to the choreography. It was empowering to try something new, and it really makes you think about the world around you."

"When you do something you don't expect you can do, you start to wonder what else you can do in life that you've been afraid to do in the past," he continues. "These boundaries we have in life, we've created them; they don't really exist. So push yourself to think beyond yourself, and see what else you can do. And in the process you realize you don't have to be amazing at everything you do, you just have to be open to it."

Thom Filicia attends Brickworks Design Studio Grand Opening at 445 Fifth Ave on March 03, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images); RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race credit vh1
Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan/Getty; VH1

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In addition to raising awareness about the Bone Marrow Foundation, Filica tells PEOPLE he wanted to do RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race to surprise Kressley.

"Carson and I, we've been on so many crazy fun journeys together, it was fun to add drag to the list," Filica says. "I knew surprising him was going to be hilarious."

Though Jackie Would, Filica's drag persona, didn't win, his ru-veal in the competition left Kressley surprised.

"When Carson and I finally communicated after the show, I asked him, 'When did you figure out it was me?' And he goes, 'Thom, I'm going to be honest with you. I had no f---ing idea it was you. It took me forever! I was so blown away!'" Filica says. "He goes, 'I didn't think it was you because of all of the thousands of people I know in this world, you are the last person I ever thought would do this.' So even when I questioned if it was you, I kept erasing the possibility of me from his mind, like, 'He's not doing this. It's got to be someone else!' "

"I said, 'See Carson? You're putting me into a box!' " Filicia laughs. "But really, when we did Queer Eye back in the day, it was all about giving people a new perspective on life. And that's really what Drag Race is doing for people now; it's helping them see the transformative power of drag, giving them a whole new perspective on something they didn't know before. To be apart of that with Carson again, in a small way, was really fulfilling."

RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on VH1.

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