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Donation Day

Marc Sanchez

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A chance at life: fresh stem cells
(Vikki Krekler)
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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.

I'm free.

"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.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Lena Galante

    From Salem, OR, 01/06/2009

    What a wonderful story. Such an honest account of a compassionate act and everything involved. The person who thinks republicans/evangelicals should be denied this treatment is misinformed and not very tolerant of differing views. I am not aware of anyone trying to block adult stem cell reseearch, only embryonic stem cell, which actually results in the destruction of the embryo (where adults walk out of the donation room with just some aches).Peace!

    By Mark OConnell

    From Irvine, CA, 01/02/2009

    There should be a screening process to deny any evangelical-republican types who block stem cell research from receiving this white blood cell donation. This sounds harsh but no less cruel than them using their stupid religion to harm others.

    By louise keller

    From burton, OH, 12/27/2008

    I too signed up to be a stem cell donor a while back and I didn't match my friend's genetic make up. She has passed and I forgot all about the sign up. I was reminded about it so I may be more prepared than Marc was and I have him to thank for that. Also what music played after the story? How does one find out what these little parts of tunes and songs are when they come between or during stories?

    By Sharie Meduri

    From Richmond, VA, 10/24/2008

    What an amazing story! What a wonderful gift you have given someone. It is rare that an individual can make such a difference in someone's life (not to mention all that love him). Amazing!


    By Pamela O'Hara

    From Oakland, CA, 06/11/2008

    Marc--- You made someone the 43 year old smile again to live again you are not just a donor you are a hero-- I work for the NMDP Thank You So Much

    By Linda Thomas

    From Parkland, FL, 05/29/2008

    Friend of your parents. Just wanted to say you are a hero to us. Our friend Tom just passed away from Myloma after a successful transplant but resulting complications. I had no idea how involved the donation process is. Thanks.

    By Kathleen Sotello

    From Whittier, CA, 05/21/2008

    That was a beautiful and amazing story,that is such a big deal.It was great to hear your voice too.Take care and stay well.Your cousin,KATHY

    By Michele Ehlert

    From Mpls, MN, 05/21/2008

    Had always thought it was a much more painful process. I am definitely interested now. Thanks for the informative story. As for the person who criticized your reticence...cut the guy some slack. He did it didn't he?

    By Darien Fisher-Duke

    From VA, 05/19/2008

    It was refreshing to hear an honest story about natural fears and concerns, and natural feelings. I shared your story with my co-workers, Marc, because many of us signed up for the bone marrow registry when a colleague of ours needed a transplant. One day one of us may get the call. In the meantime, your story helped us understand the process better. Your links are helpful too. Love, your (very proud) aunt, Darien.

    By Della Kostelnik Juarez

    From Seattle, WA, 05/19/2008

    Thanks for your story. I signed up today and after sharing how easy it was, got two friends to sign up as well.

    By Nancy Sanchez

    From Seal Beach, CA, 05/19/2008

    It was unbearable to lose my son Scott, but because of his illness Marc was made aware of the registry, and able to help another. What a selfless gift, thank you Marc, and anyone else that has overcome their fears and inhibitions and enrolled to donate. I truly hope this radio piece will inspire others to register. Love Aunt Nancy.

    By Marcia Bryant

    From Cleveland, OH, 05/19/2008

    I tried to sign up for the Registry. Unfortunately I was deferred due to the fact I have a couple of herniated discs in my lower back. As a black woman, I really wanted to be a donor and, as a matter of fact when I get deferred I cried for days. I kept thinking that someone out there was just waiting for good news and now they'd just have to keep waiting. But in the meantime, the Red Cross worker suggested I become a platelet donor and I encourage others to look into platelet apheresis. It takes longer than blood donation but you can do it more often and it helps a lot of people.

    By susan carrier

    From altadena, CA, 05/19/2008

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    Potential donors should know that it's no longer necessary to donate blood to test for a match. All it takes is a dab of the inner cheek with a cotton swab.

    Also, thanks to a generous gift, Donor Garden is offering test kits for free if ordered before May 19.


    The national registry is especially in need of Asian, African-American or mixed-race donors.

    By Christine Daves

    From Minneapolis, MN, 05/17/2008

    I appreciate any promotion for the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry and thus thank you for doing this story. However, I found myself yelling at the radio as Mr. Sanchez spoke so nonchalantly about his efforts to avoid participating. A person's life was at stake. And while staying still for 6 hours does not sound like fun - what a small price to pay to contribute to the fight against cancer and to save a life.

    By Shawn Cleary

    From Quincy, MA, 05/17/2008

    My best friend was diagnosed with luekema (ALL, Ph+) about a month ago. The only thing that could save him is a bone marrow transplant. I encourage everyone to get your name on the donation list. Don't wait until it's someone you know who needs it. go to www.marrow.org Thank you.

    By Sky Schear

    From Plymouth, MN, 05/17/2008

    I'd heard about the marrow donation drive to sign people up, but I didn't really know what all went into donating. After hearing this story I'm going to look into signing up.

    By Matt Hargrove

    From Rockford, IL, 05/17/2008

    Great story. I enjoying it a lot. I've always been a bit curious about the process, and it was so engaging to hear it at such a personal level. Thanks. Also, what was the song that was playing at the very end of the story? That, too, was good.

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