Grad Student Answers Call of Marrow Registry

November 14, 2012

Alex Carter, a student in Mary Baldwin University’s Graduate Teacher Education program, has been a routine donor of blood and platelets. Last year, the 25-year-old from Richmond, British Columbia, joined the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) and was recently called on to supply bone marrow to a stranger. The experience further strengthened her desire to help others, and she is now interested in recruiting more donors, particularly among ethnic minorities.

“I grew up in a city where more than 65 percent of people were considered visible minorities,” Carter said. “When I learned that more than half of my hometown would have trouble finding a donor if they needed one, I was shocked. Patients more often than not need a donor with the same ethnic background as themselves. This makes it very difficult for patients with unique racial heritage. Finding an unrelated donor is already difficult, but finding one in a tiny pool of donors with your ethnicity makes it much harder. For example, only seven percent of the people on the registry are of African-American heritage. That simply isn’t enough. I would ask anyone reading this to consider joining the registry, and telling all your friends to consider the same thing. You really can save someone’s life.”

Mary Baldwin News recently caught up with Carter to discover more about the bone marrow donation process:

Why did you decide to join the registry?

My parents raised me to recognize the importance of being a good neighbour, and in the concept of sharing the things I have in abundance. Thankfully, I was always in good health, and had plenty of that to share. Life doesn’t often give us the chance to make a big impact in someone else’s existence.

When did you join the registry and what did it entail?

I joined the Be The Match program last December. I was a member of the registry in Canada, but I decided that I ought to join the local registry, as I was now living in the United States and wasn’t sure if there was international cooperation between registries. (I now know that there is. I believe 48 countries share registry information.) Joining is SO easy. You sign up online, fill out a questionnaire, and Be The Match sends you a test kit. The test is a cotton swab that you rub on the inside of your cheeks. You mail back the swab in the postage-paid envelope provided. That’s it!

When did you learn you were a match? How did you learn?

In mid-September of this year, I got a call telling me that I was one of several people identified as a potential match for a patient. Donors on this registry have only a one in 540 chance of ever going on to donate, so even with this news I hardly considered that I might become a match. I gave a blood sample for their testing and was told that I would find out within six months if I were identified as a match. From that point on, I forgot about it completely.

On October 2, I came home to a package at my door. I opened it to find a booklet that said, “You’re a Match!” It was incredible. I have never felt more purposeful in my entire life. When patients have between a one in 10,000 to upwards of one in 500,000 chance of finding you … you can’t help but feel incredibly, wonderfully lucky — like you won the lottery. I don’t know if I can ever top that feeling.

Did you hesitate at all when you learned you were a match or did it only solidify your willingness to help?

I didn’t hesitate at all — I was too excited! Though, I know that hesitation is a natural and normal reaction for many donors. It’s a powerful experience and a big decision, so nobody would fault someone for having a moment of pause. Part of my upbringing created in me a need to do this. I feel like donating, in many ways, fulfilled what I believe to be the purpose of life: helping others.

Being a match makes you realize the power of the human body. I can give part of my immune system to another human being and potentially save his life. One of the most powerful things you learn during this process is that once you commit, your recipient’s life truly depends on you. You have the right to change your mind at any point, but they do tell you that once your recipient has started their intense pre-transplant treatment, they will almost surely die if you decide not to go through with the donation. That was very heavy to comprehend, but it was a very important thing to know. It is not a small decision you make when you agree to be a donor.

When was the procedure and what was it like?

The procedure was October 23 in Washington, DC, only three weeks after being matched. The turn-around for my donation was surprisingly quick. It’s not always like that, but the patient’s health determines the timeline. The procedure itself took about one hour, and since I was under general anesthesia, I don’t remember a thing. No pain, just some soreness and fatigue. I had a unit of my own blood (which I donated to myself about 10 days before the surgery) given back to me, and that really helped me feel better.

The surgical team treats you like royalty, and they make sure to alleviate any fears. A few hours after the procedure I was given a steak and lobster dinner! (Pictured, at right.) It was great. You have a bulky bandage for a night, but they take care of any discomfort you might have, so it is surprisingly pleasant. Surgical donation (what I did) is requested less frequently than the non-surgical option, peripheral blood stem cell donation.

Is the donation anonymous?

My patient is a man with an acute form of leukemia. I don’t know anything else about him, but I’ve come to love him a lot. He needed the donation quickly, so that’s what we did. Working on a schedule outside of your control is a humbling experience, but so very worth it. I can send anonymous letters and cards to my recipient right now, and one year post-op we may be able to exchange contact information.

Before the procedure I was very eager and curious about who he was and what he was like. Now that it’s over, I am still curious about him, but in a different way. All I want to know is how he’s feeling. What he’s like or where he’s from doesn’t interest me as much as just knowing this other human being (with whom I have a unique connection) is doing okay. My family and I pray for him every day and we probably always will.

How did your friends and family react?

My friends were very curious. Not everyone knew what bone marrow donation meant, but once I explained, everyone was supportive and happy for me. My parents were thrilled. They sensed how excited I was and were instantly my biggest supporters. My husband, John, (who works as a swimming coach at Washington & Lee) has a busy schedule, so the NMDP brought my mom out from Vancouver so she could accompany me throughout the process. My professors at Mary Baldwin have been really receptive to the idea, and have warmed my heart with their support and flexibility.