Two and a half years before a small team of doctors drilled two holes in his hip, extracted 1,200 milliliters of fatty bone marrow and shipped the substance to a patient in need, University of Wisconsin junior Sam Palmer did what thousands of other potential donors have done while in college — he swabbed his cheek.
Since 2010, 4,527 other UW students have swabbed their cheeks and sent the results to DKMS, a national bone marrow nonprofit which analyzes the swabs for specific Human Leukocyte Antigens tissue markers, DKMS spokesperson Sharon Persuad said.
If a donor’s tissue type is a close enough match to the tissue type of someone suffering from a blood disease or cancer, doctors can transplant the stem cells found in healthy bone marrow into the patient’s blood, according to the national bone marrow registry Be the Match. Once transplanted, the stem cells work to form new white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets, generating healthy, properly functioning blood in those suffering from specific types of blood cancers and diseases including leukemia and sickle cell anemia.
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But because tissue types are incredibly diverse, less than 1 percent of potential donors go on to donate bone marrow, according to DKMS’ website. Of the 4,527 potential donors at UW, 28 ended up donating bone marrow, Persuad said. Even Palmer’s dad, who joined the national registry in 1996, has yet to receive a call to donate.
Bone marrow registries face not only low match rates but also a disproportionately low number of black, Asian and Hispanic donors, according to data Be the Match compiled.
Since HLA tissue markers are tied to a person’s ethnic background, minority donors are in great demand. A white person has a 97 percent chance of finding a donor while a black person only has a 66 percent chance.
To both grow the number of potential donors on the national registry and to populate the registry with young people — who are more likely to be chosen to donate because their cells lead to better long-term survival outcomes — organizations like DKMS target college campuses.
According to the organization’s website, more than 2,400 drives have been conducted on college campuses through DKMS, resulting in more than 224,000 potential donor registrations and over 900 bone marrow donations.
In the spring term of 2018 alone, Phi Kappa Sigma Fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Delta, Health Occupations Students of America, Aspiring Nurses Association and American Red Cross Club each hosted drives for DKMS at UW, Persuad said.
Other organizations, like campus chapters of Be the Match and Love your Melon, have partnered to host swab drives of their own, Mackenzie Sweeley, president of Be the Match at UW said. Additionally, Be the Match partners with the Korean-American Student Association each year to hold a drive for a boy named Ally who is looking for a match on the registry.
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Palmer said the lead up to his surgery took three months.
After passing the preliminary test which matched him with someone, DKMS flew him to Washington DC to have more tests done, draw some of his blood and to have him meet the team of doctors who would do the procedure.
The four-person team based in Washington DC comprise one of a handful of international shipping centers for bone marrow along with hospitals in Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston, Palmer said.
In all, the process was painless and easy, Palmer said. DKMS paid for all of his flights and meals, they even flew out a friend and put them both in a hotel free of charge. But bone marrow donors, as opposed to plasma or blood donors, are not paid for donating.
Many people have misconceptions of what donating bone marrow is like, Palmer said. For one, only 25 percent of donors have their stem cells extracted from their bone marrow as he did. The majority of donors have their stem cells filtered out of their blood through a nonsurgical process called peripheral blood stem cell donation.
Palmer admits the idea people have of a drill boring into their hip bone sounds painful, in reality, a couple of Tylenol subsided most of the pain after his surgery.
“It certainly sounds painful,” Palmer said. “But it’s definitely less painful than it sounds.”
Palmer said he will have the option to learn the identity of the person he donated to and can choose to open up a line of communication exactly one year after the date of his donation. DKMS’ site posts accounts of many of these meetings, but Palmer said he isn’t sure if he wants to know who he donated to, partly because he doesn’t want to potentially ruin their obscured relationship.
But Palmer said he has no regrets donating bone marrow and encourages others to take two minutes and swab their cheeks.
“You might literally save someone’s life and that’s an incredible experience that you’re never really going to have as a layperson,” Palmer said. “I can only speak for my experience, but you’re talking about two weeks of mild back pain for the chance of saving someone’s life.”