By Mark Marsella
Students were able to register as potential bone marrow donors at the Be The Match Bone Marrow Drive on Monday, May 4, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Travers-Wolfe Lounge.
Monday’s event, hosted by Res Life and Delta Epsilon Psi followed a previous marrow drive that had taken place on Wednesday, April 29, in the Brower Student Center, headed by the football team and Be The Match’s “Get in the Game, Save a Life” program, which collaborates with college football programs to host drives all over the country.
These two events over the past week have allowed students at the College to strengthen Be The Match’s registry — the largest and most diverse bone marrow registry in the world — by providing their contact information, dabbing skin cells on the inside of their mouths with a cotton swab and stating their willingness to be a potential marrow donor. Any students who joined the registry could be a potential match for a blood cancer patient who needs a bone marrow transplant to live. Despite the simplicity of joining the registry, however, the actual transplant process can be time-consuming and somewhat painful, often turning away potential marrow donors.
The statistics, however, show the need for more registrants. Every four minutes, someone in the world is diagnosed with a blood cancer. A patient’s likelihood of finding a matching donor on Be The Match ranges from 66 to 97 percent, and 70 percent of blood cancer patients needing a marrow transplant do not have a matching donor in their family. That is part of the reason why senior biology major Jesse Mendillo says he helped organize Monday’s drive — because he knows it can be difficult for blood cancer patients to find donors with compatible marrow, so increasing the registry’s scope helps patients’ chances.
“I know they have blood drives here like every other week, so I wanted to benefit the community by covering all the bases and doing something different,” Mendillo said.
Mendillo organized the drive with junior economics major and pre-med student Neil Nadpara — who got it sponsored by Delta Epsilon Psi — and senior special education and i-STEM double major Bridget Byrne, who knew a contact at Be The Match and feels especially passionate about bone marrow transplants because it saved the life of her uncle.
“He was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia five years ago when I was a junior in high school, and after going into remission, he relapsed with CMML this past fall,” Byrne said. CMML, which stands for Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, is a different form of leukemia that is often caused by the kind of chemotherapy her uncle received for his first diagnosis.
“The end prognosis for this second diagnosis was that he would need a bone marrow transplant to live,” Byrne said.
A few months later, Be The Match found a compatible bone marrow donor for Byrne’s uncle.
“Now that he received [the transplant] about a month ago, he’s been progressing a lot and is able to be home with his family,” Byrne said.
Now, Byrne is giving back by organizing drives to increase the registry that saved her uncle’s life. For Monday’s event she contacted Kathy Young, a manager of the HLA Registry in Community Blood Services, who had helped organize a successful bone marrow drive in honor of Byrne’s uncle this past January.
Young says that one challenge the registry faces is that many potential donors are reluctant to sign up after learning that the transplant process can take up to 20-30 hours total between doctors visits — it can also sometimes involves surgically removing bone marrow from the hip and can be painful. That is why Be The Match clearly lays out the process to potential donors and asks them if they would be willing to go through with it before signing up.
“If anyone is still unsure or unwilling, we say, ‘Don’t sign up, you’re not ready. Wait until you’re ready,’” Young said. “I’m not coercing people or pushing people (to sign up), I want them to be ready and know exactly what they’re getting into before they register. Because if you sign up and match and back out, it could delay their transplant and give false hope to the patient’s family.”
Registrants backing out of the transplant process is another problem the registry faces.
“At our center, maybe 30 or 40 percent of people who said they were willing don’t want to donate when we call,” Young said, “especially people who signed up many, many years ago.”
Young said that she tries to convey to people that the transplant process is worth saving a life.
“My job is to educate them,” she said. “The therapies and transplants have gotten so much better over the years.”
Indeed, most donor testimonials describe the pain as no more than flu-like symptoms for a few days, or a dull ache. They also praise Be The Match’s thorough efforts to keep them informed and comfortable. And while donors only know the age, gender, disease and country of the recipient, after the first year, if both parties are willing, Be The Match will share their contact information with each other.
The only thing they know about the person who saved Byrne’s uncle, she said, is that he is a 26-year-old male from Germany.
“If you think about it, the process would take at most about an entire day’s worth of hours,” she said. “However, when you think that your one day of time could give someone years of their life — that in itself is pretty powerful, at least in my opinion.”
Byrne said that despite peoples’ reservations, the event on Monday was extremely successful.
“Today we were able to convince most of the ‘not sure’’s, but did have a few people who decided not to sign up at this time,” she said.
The football team’s drive also had a great turnout, said head football coach Wayne Dickens, with over 500 people joining the registry at that event. “Get in the Game, Save a Life” keeps track of about 40 college programs and compares how many people each school registered. According to Dickens, after last Wednesday’s event, the College is ranked second.
“It’s a very worthy cause. You have the opportunity to save someone’s life,” Dickens said. “You can’t ask for a better humanitarian gift than that.”