LT gives the gift of life

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Nathan Van Loon
  • 319th Logistics Readiness Squadron
While we all have our own reasons for choosing to answer our nation's call, certainly at the forefront of each of our minds is the intrinsic desire to help and serve others in need. This Thanksgiving, I am especially humbled by the opportunity I had just weeks ago to become a bone marrow donor for a total stranger.

If you're like me, you took the five minutes necessary to add yourself to the national registry -- a cotton swab and filling out a form -- during a drive at a previous assignment, place of higher learning or while deployed. I did so in between classes one day while I was a freshman at the U.S. Air Force Academy and never thought twice about it again until I received a call nearly four years later.

However, I've since learned that according to the National Marrow Donor Program, more than 6,000 people wake up each morning in search of a life-saving donor. These men, women, and children have life-threatening diseases, such as leukemia or lymphoma, which often can only be treated through a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant. In many of these cases, a transplant may be their best and only hope for a cure.

Shortly after arriving in Grand Forks in August of 2006, I received a phone call informing me that I was a preliminary match for an individual in need and would require further blood tests to confirm such. Thanks to the outstanding facilities and Airmen from our 319th Medical Group, I was able to have the examination performed right here at our medical treatment facility on Grand Forks AFB. While only a preliminary match at this point, there was an approximately one in 10 chance that I would be called upon to donate.

More than a year went by without hearing anything further until I was contacted in mid-October of this year by a representative from the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Center informing me that I was indeed a match with a 44 year old man who suffers from severe aplastic anemia, a rare bone marrow disease in which life-threatening infections or bleeding can occur. Additional tests were needed, and our "Warriors of the North" medical team came through once again, promptly helping me complete all the required blood draws and physical exams within a week of my notification.

After receiving the "green light" from my commander and passing all the required medical tests, I flew to Baltimore with my father to begin the donation process at the University of Maryland Greenbaum Medical Center. The National Marrow Donor Program graciously handled all travel arrangements and costs for both of us, to include hotel, airfare and meals.

The traditional means of bone marrow extraction is a simple surgical procedure through the back of your pelvic bone using a special needle and syringe; however, in my case, doctors from the transplant center requested that I participate in an alternative procedure known as Peripheral Blood Stem Cell donation. The most common reasons why a PBSC donation may be requested are because the recipient has experienced a relapse of the original disease or factors including the patient's age and overall condition.

Through this process, I learned that the cells needed for a successful marrow transplant are found in both the actual marrow and in the blood. The PBSC donation procedure captured the stem cells from my blood stream instead of from the marrow. While these cells do exist in the bloodstream, they are found in much smaller numbers than in the marrow. To overcome this, I received shots of the medication Filgrastim in order to increase my cell count. I received two of these shots, one in each arm, every morning for five days.

Those who take Filgrastim often experience various side effects, and I was no exception, feeling different levels of fatigue, bone pain, and nausea. Still, I tried to remind myself that all I was going through likely paled in comparison to that which my recipient was experiencing.

The fifth day the actual donation took place. My blood was removed through a vein in one arm, run through a machine which separated the white blood cells and stem cells from the rest of the blood, and returned to my body through a vein in the other arm. For me, the entire donation process was painless and lasted just over four hours.

Overall, my involvement with the DoD Marrow Donor Center and the National Marrow Donor Program has been extremely positive. They were very helpful both before and during the process, and have continued to answer any questions I've had since returning home. I would recommend the program to anyone who has been identified as a match and is considering donating.

I am honored by the opportunity I've had to hopefully have a positive impact on the life of another. While I am unable to learn the identification of my recipient for at least a year because of privacy laws, I look forward to the day when we might be able to contact one another. Personally, while I am grateful to have had this opportunity to help another, I know that I have simply done what many Airmen would undoubtedly do in a heartbeat if given the chance. It is less a reflection of me and more a reflection of my fortunate circumstance.

I remain stunned that I was a perfect match from a database of more than 6.5 million people, but there are still thousands patients who do not have matched bone marrow donors, especially those from racially and ethnically diverse communities. If you are not currently a member of the national registry, please consider taking the few minutes necessary to join the next time you are near a registration drive.