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How I met my match: a donor's story

One student's accound of her bone marrow donation

By Caitlin Emma
On February 15, 2010

I wasn't there to sign up for anything.


The Daily Campus had sent me to the Wilbur Cross building to cover a blood/bone marrow drive for my first story. A freshman, I fumbled with my notebook and looked for someone to interview. I felt embarrassed and I wanted out, quickly.


I approached the table of people who worked for Save Giovanni's Friends, an organization that registers bone marrow donors for DKMS Americas, an international donor center. She explained their mission and stressed the need for donors.
I scribbled notes and thanked her as I prepared to hurry out of Wilbur Cross.


"So do you want to sign up?" she asked.


"Uhh, sure," I said.


I filled out paperwork and they swabbed the inside of my cheek with a Q-Tip. They said the chance of donating proved slim and I would probably never hear from them. I left with a "Registered Donor" card and I forgot about it.


My phone rang two years later during Thanksgiving break. I didn't recognize the number with the New York area code. The woman on the other end said she represented DKMS and asked if I had received their package.


"What package?" I asked.


My mom came out of the kitchen and put a FedEx envelope on the table and mouthed, "Sorry." The woman on the phone talked but I heard only two things: they sent the package a week ago, and I might match an 8-year-old girl with acute leukemia who needed a bone marrow transplant.


She asked me to review the materials and talk to my family. When she hung up, I started yelling at my mom.


"Why didn't you show this to me?" I said.


I fumed, but my mom said she was waiting to tell me. My parents worried about the long-term risks of donating and if I would have to miss school. I understood why she worried. We needed to learn everything and make the decision together.


I read the material and called  DKMS one hour later. I said I wanted to do it and agreed to go for additional testing.


I spent the month researching with my parents and talking to my contact at the donor center. I also waited for test results to determine if I matched her perfectly.


I thought about my recipient every day. Walking on the treadmill over winter break, I turned the pages of my "Self Magazine" to a story about a girl contacted by the same donor center, DKMS. She saved a girl who needed bone marrow. Reading that story felt surreal. In the same position, I wanted so badly to help but I began to worry: what if I wasn't right?


DKMS called one week later. I matched her. My contact explained I could donate through PBSC cells, called a peripheral blood stem cell donation.


She also said I should accept knowing for certain that I would donate. She said my recipient would undergo intense chemotherapy to kill her immune system in preparation for my blood stem cells. She would be susceptible to anything and in the event that she didn't receive my cells, she would likely die.


I felt scared, sick and worried. I felt so responsible for someone I didn't even know. I obsessed every day with making sure I donated.


I went for a battery of tests at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston to ensure perfect health: an EKG, a chest x-ray, full blood chemistry work-up and an hour- long information session. I didn't drink alcohol for two weeks prior to donating.


Five days before the big day, I started a medication called Filgrastim. It grew the blood cells in my marrow at a rapid rate and pushed them out into my blood stream for collection. A nurse came to my apartment every morning to inject a dose and record my side-effects, which felt like a hangover and the flu. My hip bones and back ached with deep bone pain but I felt like something incredible grew inside.


I traveled to Boston on Feb. 10 with my mom and boyfriend. A huge snowstorm loomed and I worried about the courier delivering my cells to my recipient on time.


We arrived and I settled into a hospital bed. The nurses inserted a needle into one arm and the blood traveled out of my body into an apheresis machine. It separated out my white blood cells because the stem cells lived there. The rest of my blood traveled back into my body through an IV in my hand. All of the blood in my body traveled through the machine three times and the donation lasted six and a half hours.


I watched as the machine periodically said "harvesting." It clicked and my stem cells swirled into a bag overhead. I wanted to decorate it with bows and stickers like a present.
I only felt tired while I donated, often falling asleep.


My contact from the hospital  visited and said I could write a note to my recipient as long as it stayed confidential. I felt stunned, but not intimidated. I wrote on a piece of printer paper with my free hand. I could only write that I was a 21-year-old girl in college. I kept it short, told her she inspired me. It made me emotional. I keep the words to myself in my head and in my heart.


That afternoon, the snowstorm never came and the donation ended. I said goodbye to the wonderful nurses and took a picture with my bag of cells. I felt exhausted and very dizzy, but relieved.


I hope my cells are coursing through her blood right now and doing their job. I hope her road to recovery began and I hope her family feels some relief.


I can't say how lucky I am to have walked by the right table at the right time two years ago. I never expected a phone call, but it happened. The experience was life-affirming, emotional and I would do it again in a moment.


The DKMS Americas Web site says only four in 10 patients will ever find a matching donor. More people need to fill the registries. To enter a bone marrow registry, you can research local donor drives or send away for a registration kit. For more information, please visit: www.dkmsamericas.org or www.helpgiovanniguglielmo.org.


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