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How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Donating

by Jess Fadem, guest writerSometime around May of 2012 I got my cheek swabbed randomly in Canon Lounge on the suggestion of my adviser, Don Collins. They told me that it was testing DNA to see if you could be a bone marrow donor. The odds given were about 600:1 that you’d ever get a call back. So I did it, filled out some paperwork and basically forgot this ever happened. Around August I check my email and there’s a message from some company called DKMS. I read that I was a match and they wanted me to donate PBSC, peripheral blood stem cells to a man, a stranger, with blood cancer.

The Project Life Bone Marrow Registration Drive is happening March 6, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. in Canon Lounge

Of course, I was surprised; how am I the one in six hundred? I emailed them back and said sign me up. At first I wasn’t nervous; I looked at it as a lucky opportunity. Then I had an interview with a DKMS representative, she told me the possible side effects of both the procedure, and the medication I would have to take every day for five days prior to the donation. Then I was nervous: Potential head bleeding? $1,000,000 insurance policy if I die? Needles? Sheesh. But still, I was determined.

I was surprised to find out that I would have to do an extensive physical to find out if I was physically able to undergo the procedure. When I say surprised, I mean they called me one day at 8 A.M. and asked if I could fly out, all expenses paid, to Georgetown that night at 5. I was particularly amused to find out they sent a man in a tuxedo to pick me up in a Lincoln Town Car to take me to the airport.

After spending the night in a hotel, I woke up and headed down to the lobby to wait for the representative to pick me up. Also in the lobby were about 10 other people, and I waited for half an hour while everyone in the lobby tried to avoid making eye contact with each other. I asked myself: “Who are these people waiting in the Georgetown Hospital Hotel at 7 A.M.?”

When the DKMS representative finally arrived to take us to the hospital, I (and everyone else) was surprised to find out that everyone there was also a match, and was there to have a physical. We bonded pretty much instantly. I found out that DKMS sends all their matches from the east coast to Georgetown, as it is the only hospital that has the necessary machinery. The matches were an eclectic mix, women and men from such far-off places as New Jersey or Costa Rica. One woman had been in the DKMS registry for 10 years before she was finally found as a match. Another had been in only 2 months.

They split the group up between women and men, and we were off to be tested. I got my chest x-rayed, my blood tested, my reflexes checked, my heart examined, and so on. Racing about through various sections of the hospital and the multitude of physical examinations was both confusing and exciting. It was easy to make conversation with the other donors. I thought to myself: Is everyone who donates bone marrow this nice? By the end of the day, we were good friends.

When I got home, I felt like something of a celebrity. Multiple rides in a limo, free food, hotel, air travel, and people kept reminding me that I may be saving a life. It didn’t seem real to me yet. All I could do was mark off days in my calender.

Five days before the procedure, I started receiving shots to boost my white blood cell count, making it easier for the PBSC to be extracted from me. They sent a nurse everyday to inject. On busier days, I would receive a shot in between classes in some empty room in the science building. I wondered what people may think if they were walking by and happened to look in. One of the nurses they sent was an Iraq war vet who said I was brave for having this procedure done on me. I thought he was crazy. How am I brave for doing what I thought most anyone would do, given the chance. I didn’t think I was brave, only lucky.

The big day finally came, scheduled coincidentally on a day when I was to have a quantum test. Compared to what lay ahead, quantum seemed a million miles behind me. When I arrived in my room, I set my alarm clock for 9 and fell asleep rather easily, given the circumstances. I awoke to a phone call at 7:15 a.m. saying I was late and that I should get there as soon as possible. My brain somewhat optimistically forgot that they told me to be up that early. Disoriented, I jumped out a bed, not taking time to brush my teeth or take a shower, and literally ran downstairs to the lobby. When I got to the lobby I realized that the basketball shorts I had put on were torn down the middle, but I decided to go on anyway.

The rep showed up and led me, half asleep, disheveled, and with torn pants through the hospital to the room where they were to do some last minute blood tests. This time they had to take a fair amount of blood. To take my mind off it, we talked football.

Finally I was led to the apheresis lab, where I met the two very kind nurses who were to guide me through the procedure. I apologized for my appearance, but they told me not to worry. Just seeing the machinery made me excited. I had waited so long for this day. I laid down in the hospital bed while they got the equipment ready.

There’s no pretty way to say that they put a fairly long needle in each of my arms. I watched as blood was slowly pulled out of my right arm, and ran loops around an apheresis machine. It works by separating the blood into its component layers; the stem cell layer of interest is pulled off and sequestered, and the rest of the blood is then remixed. The blood minus stem cells was then warmed up and pumped back into my left arm.

After about 20 minutes, the process had lost its shock value and I settled in for the long haul: 8 hours. It didn’t really hurt, per se, but not being able to move either of my arms certainly got uncomfortable. Medication was made available to me to ease my nerves and lessen the pain. I brought my iPod, and listened to Metallica while I watched Sportscenter on the overhead television. I cracked jokes with the nurses. I’m not lying when I say that a procedure that involved pumping blood in and out of me for 8 hours was actually fun.

When I got home the next day, I felt a little tired and I had a headache. But those side effects were mild compared to what the brochure had warned me I was in for. People still kept mentioning how brave I was for undergoing the procedure and I believed them even less than ever. I would have undergone a lot more physical discomfort than I endured given the opportunity. At certain points of self doubt I was even forced to ask myself: Where would I draw the line?

Overall I consider myself incredibly lucky that I got to experience this. It was a personal transformation as well as an opportunity to help another in need. I was even a little let down when the whole thing ended, it felt like I was part of something important, like an elite club. If given the chance, would I do the procedure again? Yes, without a moment’s hesitation.


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