One student’s choice to donate his bone marrow
“I had the chance to make an important decision. Will I undergo surgery to potentially save a man’s life?”
Last year, sophomore Eric Vander Lee was one of 54 people who participated in a bone marrow drive at Augustana. Vander Lee was one of two participants who came back as a potential match for someone awaiting a bone marrow transplant, and was asked to donate.
“I think it’s really easy to say you would until it actually happens. But I learned something about myself when I signed the contract promising I would follow through with the donation,” Vander Lee says.
Augustana students will face that same choice this fall, as Augustana Student Association (ASA) president Matt Anderson says Augustana will once again host a “Be The Match” Bone Marrow Registry drive sometime this fall.
The program conducts simple cheek swabs to screen for initial matches to patients on the transplant list.
“If you are an initial match,” Anderson says, “then you’ll go on to a second level where they’re going to do some more extensive blood work stuff to make sure that you’re exactly the match, because if you’re not a match and you try to give a transplant you’re essentially going to kill the other person.”
Just doing the cheek swab gets you entered into the registry, meaning you could help someone down the line. According to BeTheMatch.org, people remain on the registry until their 61st birthday or when they request to be taken off. The optimal ages are 18-44.
“It’s so simple to get on the registry and now that I’m on it, I have 40 years where I could be contacted,” Anderson says.
“The fact of the matter is they don’t want older cells from people like me,” says Augustana president Rob Oliver. “They want young cells.”
Oliver was the driving force behind Augustana’s participation. He learned about the registry when his good friend was battling cancer and needed a bone marrow transplant.
“I didn’t know if Tom was going to get a match, and it scared me to death.” Oliver says. Oliver reached out to ASA about getting involved.
For Vander Lee, the choice was motivated by a neighbor with leukemia.
“I was thinking in the back of my mind it was incredibly likely I would never donate at all,” he says.
But just one week after joining the registry, Vander Lee says “I got the calls, and the emails, and the voicemails. It was an alarmingly urgent affair.” He was told that he was an initial match for a man in his sixties, and after blood work he was confirmed as a viable donor.
“There are two different types of donation,” Vander Lee says. “One involves a medication that moves your stem cells into the bloodstream where they can be easily, and relatively non-invasively, extracted and then transplanted. The other method is straight marrow which is taken from the bones of the pelvis.” Vander Lee had some doubts about the medication, and opted for the second option, “despite the pain it would bring.”
Donors in the “Be The Match” Bone Marrow Registry are “treated like royalty during the time of the donation,” Vander Lee says. Airfare, hotels, limousine escorts and the expenses to bring a friend or parent along, as well as any rehabilitation or recovery cost, is covered by the program.
“Then suddenly, I got the bad news that my donation had been cancelled,” Vander Lee says. Due to patient privacy, he was not told what happened. “I am left to assume that the man’s health suddenly declined.”
In the end, Vander Lee did not donate. However, he still values the experience.
“You really get that realization that you are willing to undergo a lot for another man’s life,” Vander Lee says.
“I think all Augie students should get on the registry. The requirements for a transplant are high, and if no close family members are alive, patients often have no choice but to turn to the registry. Obviously the more people in the registry, the more likely doctors can locate a quick and close match.”
For President Oliver’s friend, the registry did its job.
“Some woman from far away, who Tom has never met, saved his life,” says Oliver. “They found a match and the transplant was very successful. So Tom is doing well and actually just ran the Sioux Falls half marathon.”
For those thinking of joining the registry and for those who may be called upon to donate, Oliver offers a note of support from the college. “If a student was called upon for something that important,” Oliver says, “knowing the Augustana community I am confident the Augustana faculty and staff would make that work.”