Editor's note: To protect the medical privacy of the recipient of the bone marrow transplant in this story, the donor agency requires donors to stay anonymous. The donor's name has been changed to grant that request. If both donor and recipient agree later to be in contact, then the requirement would be lifted.
Some tales that will be told this Christmas season, like firefighter Blaze Smith’s story, are true ones about very personal gifts; the kind that come from the heart and from the very marrow of our bones.
Smith was matched as a bone marrow donor for a stranger, and began a process that would conclude in giving stems cells. Even as first responder, Smith felt this was an extra special way to give back.
“I think it just generally makes you feel like a good human,” Smith said. “Especially for a stranger. You literally have the opportunity to save a life. I was really excited about it.”
There are two methods of harvesting a donation. The first is surgical procedure where liquid marrow is drawn with a needle from the back of the pelvic bone. The second, which Smith received, is non-surgical.
It is called Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation. The process involves being given a drug by injections over five days which will stimulate the bone marrow to overproduce. Then the blood is filtered by dialysis and the stem cells, some platelets and some white blood cells are collected for donation. In Smith’s case, it took over seven hours to filter 240 liters of blood, which was then warmed and the plasma and red blood cells put back into the opposite arm from which it was taken. At one point, Smith needed a central line placed.
Doctors determine which type of donation will be used for that particular situation, donor and recipient.
While it was minimally invasive, Smith said, “From my perspective, it was uncomfortable for a whole week.”
Moodiness, muscle pain and severe headaches were some of the effects Smith felt as the preparatory injections changed the blood chemistry.
“I’d one hundred percent encourage people to donate,” Smith said.
Five years ago, Smith had done a cheek swab, participating in a screening drive by locals Dave and Amanda Balzer for their 9-year-old niece, Sydney, in Michigan. While she didn’t find a match in that group, Sydney did have a bone marrow transplant two years ago and continues to do well.
Many wonderful things came from the local screening drive, however. Smith was the fourth person to be called as a possible bone marrow donor from that group. Be The Match Registry says the chances of being matched and donating are about 1 in 430.
Smith was identified and added to a large group who were asked for blood samples. From those labs, Smith was identified as the best match for a recipient.
Smith was flown to the West Coast, staying just a few days for the outpatient procedure, with the travel and medical expenses of the donation covered. Afterwards, some time off work to rest was necessary.
The doctors said that Smith produced a tremendous amount of stem cells, even though it only looked like a couple of cups worth of dark fluid in the collection bag.
Smith has as a child who had medical issues, giving the family a deeper understanding of the desperation of a critically ill patient and their family.
“It has definitely made me more empathetic,” he said.
It was also interesting and meaningful that exactly two years and one day before Smith donated, a family member had died of leukemia: the same illness that the donation was helping to combat.
In three to nine months after the donation, Smith could find out how the recipient is doing. In a year, they could communicate, if both parties agree.
“Becoming a bone marrow donor is a serious commitment,” according to Be The Match.
You can find out more about the process, read donor and recipient stories and support the cause at www.bethematch.or.g You can also sign up online to receive a home test kit in the mail at www.dkms.org/Register.