Cotton swabs, phone calls and saving lives

Scott glances at his phone for incoming texts during class and sees an unfamiliar number calling him.

“A Florida area code?” he thinks to himself.

Ignoring the call but keeping his phone on his lap, a white blinking light catches his already curious eye. Before opening the e-mail, he sees “Important message from Gift…”

He feels his heart beating faster.

And faster.

Is he a match?

Can he save someone’s life?

He opens the e-mail and sees that he could be a potential bone marrow match for a man with lymphoma.

The Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation registers people interested in becoming a bone marrow, blood stem cell or umbilical cord blood donor. Those in need of these transplants could have diseases such as leukemia or other blood-related cancers, according to Gift of Life.

A person qualified to register in the donor bank will rub four cotton swabs against the inside of his or her cheek, along with filling out a consent form.

St. Bonaventure University’s Healthcare Division of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) hosted its first annual bone marrow drive in Fall 2010, swabbing around 35 people including senior finance major Scott Wozer.

“It makes you feel good to think you have the potential of helping someone out. If I needed a transplant, I’d hope a good match for me was registered,” says Scott. “I’ve saved a life as a life guard, but this is different.”

Understanding that the chance of him getting picked to donate was low, Scott still hoped he would one day have the opportunity to save someone in this way.

Currently, the Gift of Life registry has about 190,000 donors and has facilitated about 2,400 transplants.

“He’s the needle in a haystack [if he gets picked],” says Gift of Life recruitment coordinator Shayne Pilpel. “Based on the Gift of Life data, there’s a one-in-a-thousand chance a donor will be matched.”

After the initial cheek swab and the life-changing call, a potential donor goes for further confirmatory blood tests, a full physical including health history and additional blood work before the actual donation, according to Gift of Life.

The donation may not feel as painless as the simple cheek swab, though. A donor could have his or her marrow extracted from the hip area using a needle and local or general anesthesia. The donor may experience some soreness after the donation for a few days. Another way of donating involves Filgrastim injections for five days before donating stem cells. The priceless gift is removed using a needle in both of the donor’s arms. Some donors may experience flu-like symptoms prior to the donation.

A transplant team responsible for a patient in need will search a worldwide bone marrow donor database, such as Bone Marrow Donors Worldwide, says Pilpel.

Not only has St. Bonaventure been a home to a potential bone marrow donor, but also to a recipient. Patrick Hart was diagnosed with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) in April 2010. His physician told him in July that he needed a bone marrow transplant. Because his brother was not a good enough match for the transplant, Patrick’s transplant team turned to the donor registries.

“They found four suitable matches and from there chose the best of the four,” says Patrick.

Patrick and his family moved to Baltimore, Md., for treatment and his transplant on October 14, 2010.

“The actual transplant took 2.5 hours and was very anti-climactic,” says Patrick. However, the days leading up to the transplant involved 12 days of chemotherapy to eliminate most of his infected bone marrow.

Patrick had complications following the transplant, including stomach issues and changes in appetite. He still tries to stay away from crowds to avoid getting sick. “This makes the recovery process very long and boring,” says Patrick.

He has spent time doing arts and crafts, watching television and taking online courses to continue his goal of graduating from St. Bonaventure. Patrick would have graduated in May 2012. However, now he only has enough credits to be considered a junior, says the marketing major.

Without his match getting swabbed, Patrick might not have had as great of a chance to recover and continue with school.

One of Scott’s sisters, Kaitley, could not get swabbed when Scott did because she had not yet turned 18, the minimum age to register. When she heard her brother got a call, she could not believe it.

“To be honest, the entire thing seemed comical; the reality of what was possible because of the DNA on that Q-tip was so far removed from my cognition,” says the freshman biochemistry major.

“I was oddly proud of Scott for being selected, even though I know it has nothing to do with him except for pure biological chance,” Kaitley says.

According to Gift of Life, for tissue and other donations or transplants, a donor and recipient most likely have similar ancestry. Scott could have ancestors of a similar origin to those of the patient.

Kaitley took the initiative to present the idea of a Gift of Life chapter at her school, Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She plans to hold bone marrow drives to register more eligible donors for patients in need.

“Maybe it’s just that time of year—this notorious season of gift-giving—that has gotten me so intoxicated with the idea of a worldwide network of people saving other people, but I plan to act on this and can’t wait to get something started at my own school,” says Kaitley.

After checking his voicemail left during class, Scott’s eyes welled with tears. “This man could be someone’s dad. What if my dad needed a transplant?” he thought.

He knew no matter what his family said to him, he had made his decision. When his parents did not pick up his initial call informing them of the news, he called Gift of Life back, telling them he would go through with the process.

A few days after the initial phone call, Scott had further blood work done for confirmatory testing and has not yet gotten an update on his status.

“I check my e-mail every day, hoping to see some sort of update from Gift of Life. I’ve woken up from dreams about being able to donate and then meeting the recipient. Maybe I’ll find out tomorrow,” says Scott.

To be continued…

Gift of Life website: http://www.giftoflife.org/default.aspx

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