Air Force spouse encourages others to Be the Match that may save a life

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Tammy Bender had just seen her husband, Brandon, off on his first deployment in the spring of 2012 when they were stationed at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England. As she was walking through the BXtra there, she was offered a unique proposition.

"There was a captain there at the time who asked me if I'd like to do a cheek swab for the Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program, so I agreed," she said. "Only a few months later, that November, I got a call saying I had been matched to someone, perfectly."

The process of donating begins when potential donors add their name to the National Marrow Donor Program registry, as Bender did with a simple mouth swab. Doctors then search the registry to find donors who are a potential match for their patients. Donors who are identified as a possible match are contacted and asked if they are still willing to complete the process. Those identified as the best match participate in an information session, and complete a final physical to determine if donation is the best course for the donor and the patient.

Once Bender received the phone call that said she had been matched with a patient, she said she was given time to decide whether she wanted to go through with the procedure, but it didn't take her long to say yes.

"I really think that if you put your name on the registry list, you should be prepared for the possibility of getting that phone call, and there was no way I was going to say no," she said. "I was going to do it no matter what."

Bender explained that once she agreed to go ahead with the procedure, she underwent a battery of tests, including a physical and blood work, as well as an extensive interview at their local clinic. She was finally dispatched to Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

"I flew out there with my friend, our tickets were paid for, my husband was TDY at the time, but they even paid for my childcare during the time I was gone," she said. "I was able to stay in a room right across from the hospital and I was even able to tour the area a bit during my stay."

The Be the Match Registry, operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, describes the basics of bone marrow donation on their website. Bone marrow donation is reputed to be a painful procedure with a long recovery process. According to the website, there can be uncomfortable, but short, side effects after donating bone marrow. Most donors can get back to their normal routine in as little as a couple of days, though Bender did explain that she experienced nausea, vomiting and body aches during and shortly after her donation procedure.

Additionally, only 5 percent or less of a donor's bone marrow is needed to save a patient's life. The donor's immune system stays strong, and cells regenerate within four to six weeks. No bone fragments are removed during the procedure, the majority of donations do not involve surgery, and there is never any cost to donate.

Bender explained that donors and recipients are not allowed to meet for up to a year from the time they are matched, but once that time had elapsed for her, she was able to meet the person she had donated to.

"The lady I donated to was a 52-year-old leukemia patient with young adult children," she said. "We went to her church and surprised her after enough time had passed, and we are still in contact with her family today."

Unfortunately, the leukemia she was fighting made a comeback. Ultimately, she lost her battle to leukemia late in 2014.

"Even knowing that, though, I would still do it again," Bender said. "It means so much to the person you're doing it for. It's a matter of weighing your temporary discomfort against their chronic pain. You have to ask yourself which is more important. And it was a great way for me to show my kids that you can do something incredibly special and kind for a total stranger. It's definitely worth it."

Anyone feeling inspired to save a life can do so at the upcoming bone marrow donor registration drive, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Grand Forks Air Force Base Exchange June 19, 2015. For more information, call 701-747-5023 or visit the Be The Match website at http://bethematch.org/.