Donation DayDECEMBER 27, 2008
- A chance at life: fresh stem cells
- (Vikki Krekler)
- View the Slideshow
- Register with the National Marrow Donor Program
- Mayo Clinic guide on what bone marrow donors should expect
More From Marc Sanchez
We're taking a look at stories that have stayed with us through the year. This next one has to do with a letter. One of our producers, Marc Sanchez, received a FedEx package in early spring, and soon as he read the return address, he knew that they had found him. "They" are the National Marrow Donation Program. And Marc was going to have to face something he didn't even know he'd been avoiding.
I went out to get the paper a few months ago, and there was a FedEx package sticking out of the mailbox. It was one of those special before-10-in-the-morning deliveries.
I figured they must have the wrong address. But when I saw the return address, I knew...
I took the envelope inside, and tossed it on the table. My wife came downstairs and asked who sent it. I told her, and said maybe I'd open it after I got home from work.
How did they track me down? I signed up five years ago. I've moved three times since then.
I didn't let it get to me. I didn't think about the envelope all day. But there it was, waiting for me on the table when I got home:
"Dear Marc: Thank you for participating in the National Marrow Donor Program -- the NMDP. You recently have been identified as a potential match for a 43-year-old man in need of a life-saving bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant. We have been trying to contact you to arrange for confirmatory testing and infectious disease testing."
About five years ago, my cousin Scott was battling Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was getting ready for another round of chemo. I felt pretty helpless whenever I thought about him. I planned to see him at the hospital, but put it off for a couple days.
When I showed up, a nurse told me he had been moved to another hospital. She asked if I wanted to see if I was a match to donate bone marrow for Scott -- there's a better chance for a match with family members than an anonymous donor.
Thirty minutes later, I had donated some blood and found myself signing up to be part of the National Marrow Donor Program. Basically, if I wasn't a match for Scott, I might be a match for someone else down the road. It didn't seem like much, but I felt like I was helping.
I wasn't a match. He died not too long after.
"We understand that personal situations arise which make continued participation in this program difficult. Therefore, donors may elect to withdraw from this program at any time, either temporarily or permanently."
I tried to forget about the letter, but they wouldn't let me. The NMDP called me at home and at work, but I never answered the phone. I was just too busy. It's not that I didn't care about the 43-year-old man, but come on -- that was like five years ago that I signed up. Being a donor wasn't on my schedule anymore.
I was feeling a little guilty. I told a friend the story, and he said: "Why not go in and get tested? The chances of you being a match are still pretty slim."
Right. I would find out I wasn't a match, my phone would stop ringing and I could walk away guilt-free.
I made the appointment, a nurse drew a little blood, thanked me and I went on my way.
A couple days later, the phone rang: I'm a genetic twin of the 43-year-old man.
As part of the deal, I had to get a physical. I hadn't been to the doctor in a long time -- and I was secretly hoping they might find something wrong with me, so I could back out of this.
The physical was in the bone marrow transplant clinic at the University of Minnesota. The waiting room was pretty crowded, but it was easy to spot the cancer patients -- they were the ones wearing masks. Chemotherapy obliterates everything in it's path, so immune systems are vulnerable. It's tough to fight off even the smallest cold.
I didn't make eye contact, and tried to keep to myself in the waiting room. I felt like an intruder.
Then a nurse called my name. I took a deep breath and walked in.
She had 11 tubes there, each with a color-coded rubber cap. All waiting for my blood. "This is probably the most blood you'll have drawn in one
sitting in your whole life," she tells me. "It's less than 100cc's of blood. You're probably going to have a total of maybe three ounces."
A cardiogram, an EKG, and three ounces of blood later and I'm good to go. Cleared for donation. Back ache, sore sternum, a touch of insomnia.
"One of the major side effects of this is pain."
That's Deb. She's the nurse that came by my house every day to give me shots.
"...And it's predominately bone pain, because what we're doing is we're stimulating that bone marrow to produce these new white cells, these new stem cells."
I was prescribed a steady diet of Tylenol and ibuprofen to "stay ahead of the pain."
"So what will happen is, every day I'll come in and I'll do a little assessment. And then after that, I will give you your injection. And then I'll need to sit with you for 15 minutes or so, just to make sure you don't have a problem," Deb says.
No problems. But there was the one day when she switched the injection site from my arm...
"I think this is a really wonderful thing you're doing," Deb says.
"Well... I don't know," I admit to her. "It just kind of happened. And it turns out I'm a match, so..."
"Yeah, but you had to sign up for it. A lot of people wouldn't do that because of going through all this."
"It doesn't seem that bad, you know? I mean, maybe the shot in my stomach will change that," I say with a laugh. "It doesn't seem that bad. If that's the worst of it, that's OK."
Donation day arrives -- one last shot to give my white blood cells a jolt.
"We're going to do a double arm," the nurse explains. "One will be on this side. It will constantly draw your blood -- so the right side will be the squeezing part, and the left side will be the relaxing part"
Blood gets pulled into a centrifuge, and that spins out the white blood cells. The rest of the blood -- the stuff that isn't white blood cells -- is pumped back into my left arm.
Thank God my wife was there. I'm on this reclining chair with my arms splayed out for six-and-a-half hours. Six-and-a-half hours! Any time I had an itch, she had to scratch it. Any time I wanted something to eat, she had to feed it to me. And any time I had to go to the bathroom, she was there with the pan.
"So you're free," the nurse says.
"You got both your arms back. If you want to go to the bathroom, you can do so. Please come back, because I have to check your vital signs. Make sure you move so slow -- very slowly. Don't move so fast."
In the end, the whole process wasn't that big a deal. It was only a couple days out of my life -- that's less time than the average American spends doing his taxes.
The 43-year-old man received his transplant. There's a process set up so that donors and recipients can eventually meet. But I don't think I want to do that. After watching Scott die, I don't think I can handle the heartache.
John Moe: So Marc, that story originally aired in May. What kind of response did you get after we aired that?
Marc Sanchez: I wasn't expecting anybody to contact me or anything. People started writing into the website telling me how they were going to sign up for the donor program. One woman wrote in and said she didn't know how easy it was to sign up for the program, and she even got people at her work to sign up for the program.
Moe: You say in the story that you didn't want to hear from the person that you donated to. Have you changed your mind?
Sanchez: I thought about it, but I still don't think I want to hear from the guy. There's a nurse that's been checking up with me, to follow up on my progress - to see if I have any problems - and she will ask me sometimes if I want to know the progress of the recipient of the donation. I did it, and I'm glad I did it. And I would probably do it again, but unless it's somebody that I am directly related to, I don't wan to get involved in that.
Moe: Why not?
Sanchez: In this case specifically, I think I was rushed through the donation process, because the recipient wasn't doing so well. I got the feeling that he wasn't going to make it
Moe: You just don't want to know that?
Sanchez: Somewhere, deep down, I know that, but I don't want to take that on. I took on the responsibility of going through the donation, but I think that's enough.