|Lorillard FCU Branch Manager Linda Spain donated bone marrow on August 1-2, 2011. She will soon find out how the recipient of her donation is doing. |
Any day now, Linda Spain’s phone will ring and she will get the news she’s waited nearly a month to hear. The caller will deliver news that will likely be very encouraging, or very disappointing – the middle ground is not much of an option at this point.
The conversation will give the Branch Manager at Lorillard Federal Credit Union the first inkling as to how the bone marrow she donated to a complete stranger is being accepted by the grateful recipient.
“About all I know is he is a 39-year-old man living in the United States,” Spain said of the recipient of her donation of peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC). She donated some 10 million units of PBSC on August 1st and 2nd, which is quite a bit more than is usually taken. “They told me he was probably a really big guy,” Spain explained, “so I imagine he’s a weightlifter or a former football player or something like that.”
While Spain may never know exactly who the recipient of her gift is, she does know that her donation has given the man his best hope of successfully fighting against a particularly deadly form of cancer - Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, or AML. According to the Be the Match web site, AML is a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. With AML, the white blood cells do not form fully and therefore cannot fight infections.
Lorillard CEO Patti Weber has known Spain since she joined the credit union as CEO earlier this year. Spain is a five-year veteran of the credit union movement and Weber calls her, “A real credit union person. She puts the members first, and she’s a dedicated and loyal employee.”
Weber gave her the time off to make the donation. “Linda was planning to take vacation and I said, ‘no way,’” Weber laughed.
If you aren’t aware of how bone marrow transplantation works you might think it is a last resort, but it’s actually one of the first weapons deployed against AML … at least for those lucky enough to find a donor match. Typically, patients receive bone marrow after they complete their first round of chemotherapy and successfully enter remission. “Doing it that way gives them the best chance at beating AML,” Spain said.
According to statistics on the Be the Match web site, adult patients who receive PBSC during their first remission have about a 44% five-year survival rate. With no transplantation, Spain said she was told the survival rate was less than 15%. She added statistics like that make her wish more people would get involved with the Bone Marrow Registry.
Spain’s August 1st PBSC donation was not so much an event as it was a process. Spain’s process started when her recipient candidate entered remission in the spring. The Bone Marrow Registry sprang into action, identifying potential donor matches from its database. Once identified, they are called for further screening.
The telephone interviews screen out donors who may no longer be willing or able to participate for one reason or another . Any remaining candidates are then scheduled to come in for further blood testing in order to identify the most suitable donor match for the recipient.
A registry volunteer since 1997, Spain said she received two such phone calls in the past, “but it never went any further than that.” But this time, Spain received another call. “They wanted me to come in for confirmatory testing,” she said.
Conducted at the end of June, the blood tests confirmed that she was a match – the best possible match. “I was so happy I would able to help somebody,” she said.
Spain still had a few more steps in the process, and risks to consider. She received a DVD outlining how the donation procedure works and the risks involved, which include pain, and more serious side effects including bleeding of the spleen. “A lot of people back out when they hear about the risks,” Spain said, “and my boyfriend wanted me to back out.”
But Spain never gave a thought to changing her mind.
The next step came at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. A few days before her donation, Spain received an injection of filgrastim, which kicks the production of white blood cells into high gear.
The surge in white blood cells increased the pressure within Spain’s bones, leading to a few days of pain. But Spain is tough – and she fought through the pain all the way to donation day. Her blood pressure also spiked, but medication brought it back down to safe levels.
Spain administered subsequent injections of filgrastim at home the following three days. She then returned to WFUBMC for a fifth and final filgrastim shot, and finally -- two months after the initial phone call letting her know she was a potential match, it was time for Spain to donate PBSC. Spain received needle sticks in each arm, and a cell separator machine pulled blood out of one arm and cycled it back into the other.
The machine spins the blood at high speeds, which separates it, allowing the machine to collect blood-forming cells, platelets and some white blood cells. The remaining plasma and red blood cells were then pumped back into Spain’s body in the other arm.
During the five-hour process, Spain could not get up or move for any reason. “My nose itched right after it started,” Spain laughed. Luckily a dutiful volunteer was on hand to help out.
Due to the physical size of the recipient, Spain returned to WFUBMC a second day for another five-hour appointment with the cell separator machine. Thankfully there were no complications and other than feeling tired for a day or two, no side effects other than the bone pain. After only one day at home to rest and regroup, Spain was back at work.
An avid motorcycle rider, Spain shows the world a tough exterior. But her commitment – and the risk she took - for a total stranger, belies a caring individual underneath it all. “This is somebody’s brother or father or son,” Spain said. “I would want someone to do it for me.”
Spain first learned about the Bone Marrow Registry in 1997, when a high school classmate of her daughter’s developed leukemia. “They had a blood drive at the school and they were screening people there, so that’s when I first joined,” Spain said.
Unfortunately, no match was found for the 17-year-old young man and he succumbed to the disease.
Be the Match performs more than 5,200 transplants each year and has facilitated a total of 43,000 since 1987. The need for donors is great, however. About 70% of patients who need a transplant do not have a suitable donor from their family. “I really wish more people would get involved,” Spain said.
Spain’s phone call will let her know if the transplant was successful and how the patient is responding. If he continues to progress and stays cancer-free, there is a chance they will one day get to meet in person. “But that’s probably a year or two away from happening,” Spain said, “because they have to make absolutely sure.”
The phone call comes with no guarantees of a happy outcome, and she realizes that. “I keep telling myself I’ve done everything I can do.”
Registry participants are able to donate twice in their lifetime and Spain says no matter what happens with her mystery recipient, she is willing to donate one more time if called upon. “I’ll do it again in a heartbeat,” she says.
But for today, that’s definitely not the phone call that’s on her mind.
(Editor’s note: Be the Match is holding a 5K & 1K fun run and tot trot on Saturday, September 17. The event takes place at Jetton Park in Cornelius. For more information on the Be the One Run, please click here.)