October 23, 2013
Every November OST holds one of the most amazing Chili Cook-off’s in Kent County. Partly due to of all of the amazing chili entries, but more importantly, because Michigan Blood’s “Be the Match” National Marrow Donor Program has a sign-up station on-site. Employees are encouraged to add their name to the ever growing list of potential bone marrow donors, and last year was my year. Almost 52 weeks later, I’ve been asked to share my experiences with Michigan Blood and “Be the Match”, the National Marrow Donor Program. Below is the story shared on my personal blog, and now with you.
Last May I was walking around the pool at my hotel in Texas when I received a very strange call. “Hello, my name is Barbara from Michigan Blood, and I am calling to inform you that you are a match for someone on the National Marrow Donor Program.” I thought it was a joke. Surely they couldn’t have just found a match for someone who had just joined the registry months before? Now, just starting out my new life in Texas, my old hometown was calling me back – the Vampires just couldn’t leave me alone.
Barbara explained to me that donating bone marrow was something that could potentially save someone’s life – if I were the correct match. Bone marrow, or in my case Stem Cells (aka PBSC or Peripheral Blood Stem Cells), are needed to produce healthy cells that fight sickness in your body. Without these cells, more commonly known to my phlebotomy-enthused friends as “white blood cells”, you could die from something as trivial as the common cold. “So, Joel, can we put you down as a potential donor?” Barbara asked. I replied “Sure, I’d be happy to” not thinking that I actually would be chosen. It turns out that since I had given blood so recently the lab already had a good sample of my blood and was able to determine that I was a perfect match for the potential recipient. A few days later, I was on the phone again, discussing a schedule to return to Grand Rapids. The first trip was for testing, the second for the actual donation. Within hours of that phone call, Jessy and I were back on the road, hot on the trail leading back to Grand Rapids.
The testing was nothing less than a “full workup”. Test tube after test tube filled up with my crimson O+, ready to be examined by white coats looking for any sign that might disqualify me from donation. After a chest X-Ray, full physical, and other tests, I was cleared for donation. Barbara spoke with me again, “This is the time to drop out if you were ever going to. The closer we get to donation time, the harder it is for us to start the process over again.” My resolve thickened as she went on. “Because we will be collecting your stem cells instead of actual marrow (the painful stuff), we need to time the donation to your recipient’s treatment schedule. So, Joel, are you still on board?”
I am limited in what I can say about my patient because of HIPAA laws, but this much I can say publicly: he is a man in his sixties undergoing treatment for cancer. That’s all the information I needed to imagine him as someone not too much older than my own Dad. I thought to myself “Would I go through a week of slight discomfort to save my own Dad’s life?”… “Yes, absolutely” I replied to Barbara. We were both excited.
I returned to Texas with the knowledge that I would be aiding in someone’s treatment, and possibly saving their life. The next week flew by as I awaited my donation date. Many well-wishers had reached out to me, wishing me good luck and prayers for my upcoming travels and donations. Others asked questions like “Wait, Bone Marrow donation? Doesn’t that hurt a lot?” Although I wanted to sound super-manly and say pain wasn’t something I ever felt, I replied with the truth: “PBSC isn’t like giving actual marrow. You give your stem cells in a blood-transfusion type of procedure”. Turns out, 60% of all donations are PBSC, and 90% of all donations are from people between the ages of 18-44. Stats and well-wishes on my mind, I landed in Grand Rapids, eager to make a difference.
What awaited me were needles filled with Filgrastim – my drug of choice for the next week. To put it plainly: Filgrastim makes my body produce a ton of white blood cells that are ripe for donation. Side effects? Feeling like I was coming down with a cold for an entire week; sore bones, clogged throat, headaches, general crankiness – you know, the stuff that makes you want to curl up and date Netflix for an entire day. These injections were necessary to ensure that my day of donation was as fruitful as possible.
Finally my arm was pricked for my last dose of Filgrastim (which was not the last needle I was to be poked by that day) – my donation day had arrived. I arrived at Michigan Blood in my oversized sweatpants and comfy shirt, ready to do what I had been preparing for over the last month. Barbara and Emily, the nurse who had injected me with Filgrastim for the last week, were waiting for me. Donation would be an eight hour process where my blood would be drawn from my right arm, pumped into a machine that would filter the white cells from the red cells and plasma, which were pumped back into my left arm while the white cells were spun in a centrifuge to purify the collection. As the donation bag slowly filled, friends, family and Jimmy Johns came and went, except for my wife Jessy who stayed the entire time, someone thank her for that. The nurses and I exchanged stories while the centrifuge kicked on and off, adding more of my cells to the bag. I awoke from a brief nap to find that a crisis had struck: I had to pee, badly. The red blood cells and plasma were returning to my arm with the help of Saline, which also helped to hydrate me during my donation. The worst pain of the whole process was having to urinate during the last hour and a half of the day – an experience that brought me closer to one of my favorite astronomers, Tycho Brahe. Not a moment too soon the doctor overseeing my case entered the room, examined the bag and agreed that I had given the required amount. I was free to pee.
A month later or so later, after re-settling in Texas, I got the good news. After receiving a healthy amount of the best stem cells anyone had ever seen, my patient was in recovery. The news sunk in, the thought had become a reality: I had saved a life. You too can add your name to this list. If you are between the ages of 18 and 44, please consider adding your name to the National Marrow Donor Program. It’s super simple: a couple of forms and a mouth swab, and you’re in. The need for young men and women to join the registry is growing daily, especially for minorities.
If you’re looking for more information on how you can join the registry, please check out Michigan Blood. Michigan Blood coordinates the local chapter of the Be The Match Registry; contact them at 616-233-8644 or firstname.lastname@example.org. If joining the Be The Match Registry is not something you feel comfortable with, there are many ways to get involved, such as donating blood, volunteering, and joining in their many fundraising activities, including the Charity Golf Outing and Zombie Dash.