When Drew Lambert signed up for the bone marrow donor registry in March, he knew there was only a one in 540 chance he would be a match. But just a few months later, he was notified he was. During the next few weeks, Lambert will take advantage of what he sees as an opportunity of a lifetime — the chance to anonymously donate stem cells to a patient facing almost certain death without them.
In March, a student organization at Husson University hosted a donor recruitment drive, asking students and faculty to swab their cheeks. The swabs from those who participated were sent to Be The Match, operated by the National Marrow Donor Program. Lambert, who teaches pharmaceutical classes at the university, took part to show his support.
“I really didn’t think that much of it,” he said.
However, he received an email from the program in late May, notifying him he could be a possible match. After further testing, he found out he not only was a possible match but the best one and was then required to complete a final intensive physical at Massachusetts General Hospital. According to Be The Match, only one in 540 people on the donor list are ever “perfect” matches.
“Everything looked good from that point, so I was scheduled [for a donation],” Lambert said.
Once in a lifetime
At first, Lambert was skeptical of his chances of making it through each step of the months-long process. But as he progressed through the preliminary tests and exams, his attitude changed.
“I was pretty excited about it. … I started hoping at every step that I’d be able to continue,” he said, adding eventually he realized he was being handed an opportunity.
“It’s not every day you get a chance to impact someone’s life in such a huge way and especially a chance to possibly save their life,” Lambert said. “I would hope that if I were in the situation that someone else would be willing [to donate].”
As a medical professional, Lambert said he had a better understanding about what the donation process would entail, which gave him confidence and calmed any fears.
He also knew his procedure would be less invasive than traditional bone marrow harvesting procedures because of a new method being used at the Rhode Island hospital where his extraction will take place. (Because of patient confidentiality, Lambert could only share the general location of where the procedure will happen.)
During a traditional harvesting method, a large needle is inserted into the bone and marrow is extracted. But Lambert will undergo a procedure called a “perfusion method.” According to an article on the John Hopkins Medicine website, during a perfusion, blood cells are drawn out through one arm; are sent through a cell separation machine, which removes the stem cells; then the remaining blood and plasma are returned through the donor’s other arm.
It is a less painful method, and recovery is quick — anywhere from 48 to 72 hours.
Lambert recently started taking a medication called Neupogen, which stimulates the white blood cells and helps create more stem cells. He’ll have another blood test to check his white blood cells level. Then he will travel to Providence, Rhode Island, in the next few weeks to donate.
Until then, he needs to stay in the country and avoid contact sports, both of which he said he didn’t have plans to do anyway.
He knows what date the procedure will take place, but is unable to let anyone outside of his immediate family know because of patient confidentiality. The person receiving his cells may or may not be at the same hospital and will not have his name or place of residence. The only thing Lambert knows about the patient is that he or she needs stem cells, most likely because of a condition such as leukemia.
The registry will facilitate anonymous written communication between the pair for the first year, if Lambert and the patient are interested. After that year, if both parties agree, they can meet.
“I can tell them things like that I live in the New England area and am in the health care profession,” Lambert said. However, he hasn’t decided whether he’s interested in meeting the person he’s donating to. “Part of me thinks maybe it might be best just to stay anonymous.”
After the procedure, Lambert’s recovery will take a few days. If by chance he is matched again, he said he can make one more donation, then Be The Match would remove his name from the list. There haven’t been any studies done about possible long-term consequences to donating more than twice, so Lambert said the two donation cap is a precaution.
In the meantime, he is encouraging others to add themselves to the registry, and learn more about their chances of actually being matched.
“I think the main thing people should know [is] that the chance you do actually get matched is very, very low. … It doesn’t take very long to sign up at all,” he said. “But if you do, it’s a chance to help someone tremendously.”
Joining the bone marrow registry
According to Be The Match, thousands of patients with blood cancers, including leukemia or lymphoma, or other life-threatening diseases depend on the bone marrow registry to find a genetic match. Even with millions of people on the lists, many do not find a match in time.
Doctors choose donors based on the best match of human leukocyte antigen markers to those in need. However, research shows that younger donors, ages 18 to 44 years old, often lead to more successful transplants. It is free for individuals in that age group to join the list and anyone 45 to 60 years old can pay a $100 tax-deductible payment to join.
To join the registry, individuals can find a donor drive, a list of which is kept on the Be The Match website, or request a sample kit from the organization. The kit will include instructions on how to take a cheek swab and send it in for testing. Once on the list, your name will remain until you either donate twice or reach the maximum donor age.
For more information about donating or to request a kit, visit the Be The Match website at bethematch.org or call 1-800-627-7692.