There’s a reason Eileen Smith ’10 is spearheading a Bone Marrow Registration Drive for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute on Fairfield’s campus, Wednesday, December 9, 2009. Two reasons, in fact.
First, Smith’s father has a best friend who was diagnosed with leukemia a year and a half ago. Everyone in her family – Katie Smith, her mom; Paul Smith, her dad; Dan Smith, her brother; and herself all joined the registry but were not matches. Feeling helpless, both Dan and Eileen decided to spread the word on their respective college campuses to get more people involved. Dan just graduated from Binghamton University and Eileen attends Fairfield University.
If members of the Fairfield University community sign up for the bone marrow registry, will the Smith’s family friend be helped? “Not likely,” says Smith, “but when he heard about what we were doing, he was just grateful that someone else might have a chance.”
Second, Smith’s best friend’s mother, Patricia Kovalski, is a Donor Services Coordinator at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and it’s her job to attract as many prospective bone marrow donors as possible.
A Live-Saving Registry
On any given day, more than 6,000 men, women, and children are searching the National Marrow Donor Program’s (NMDP) Be The Match ? Registry for a life-saving donor. These patients have leukemia, lymphoma, and other life-threatening diseases that can be treated by a marrow, stem cell, or cord blood transplant.
But the sad fact is, today only 2 out of every 10 patients will receive the transplant that could save their lives. “Thousands of patients are looking for a match,” says Smith, “and every new donor we register might help save a life. We are especially encouraging people of diverse ethnic backgrounds to join, as all minorities are minorities in the registry as well.”
Racial and ethnic heritage play a vital role in tissue matches. Because tissue types are inherited, a patient is more likely to match someone from his or her own race or ethnicity. Adding more donors from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to the Be the Match Registry increases the likelihood that all patients will find a life-saving match.
Where, When & What Will Happen
Fairfield University’s Bone Marrow Drive will be held in the Lower Level Barone Campus Center, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., on December 9. Students, faculty, staff, and the greater community are all encouraged to participate. The only charge for the day is to have interested applicants fill out paperwork and get a mouth swab – a quick cotton dab inside the cheek – to enter into the registry.
From there, a donor is on the Registry until age 61. It is possible those on the registry may never be called as a match, or may receive a call from the Institute many years down the road, or sooner! It all depends if the patient searching the registry for a donor has a similar tissue type. The cheek swab given during registration determines the tissue type.
For those called as a potential match, the next step is to get a good health check and blood work drawn. A majority of donations do not involve surgery. Today, the patient’s doctor most commonly requests a Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation which is non-surgical. The other way is marrow donation, which is a surgical procedure. With both types of donations, donors usually go home the same day they donate. Those donating marrow receive general or regional anesthesia, so they feel no needles or pain during donation. Marrow donors can expect to feel some soreness in their lower backs for a few days.
Because only a small fraction of the body’s life-giving cells are donated, the donor’s immune system stays strong and the cells replace themselves within 4-6 weeks. The donor’s cells are then taken to the transplant center and infused into the patient. These healthy “donated” cells settle into the patient’s bone marrow, and begin to grow and produce new healthy blood cells and platelets, giving the patient a second chance at life.
Although the registry is anonymous, the donor is entitled to know the patient’s age, sex, and type of disease. In many cases, after a year past donation, donors and recipients can choose to communicate and even arrange to meet each other.
Helping Others – A Nurse’s Calling
Smith entered Fairfield University’s School of Nursing undergraduate program four years ago, following the career print of her mother, who is an occupational health nurse at the Health Center of the Merrill Lynch Building in Manhattan. Smith has looked up to her mother since she was a child. “I know all moms take care of their children when they’re sick, but mine was really special,” she says with a smile.
Smith has been happy with her Fairfield experience since her freshman year – she loves her teachers, her classes, her roommates, the campus, and all the activities available to her. Smith became a Eucharistic Minister her first year here, is a member of the Student Nurses Association, and took a service immersion trip to the Philippines and Australia two summers ago, for three and a half weeks.
“It was a life-changing experience,” maintains Smith. “These families who have nothing want to give you everything.” At night, the families offered their beds to the students; since it was considered disrespectful to refuse them, Smith and her fellow students slept on beds while their host families slept on the floor. “It’s such a different culture. In America, we have so much, but just want more.”
Smith looks forward to leading a service immersion trip to Belize in Central America this winter break. But before she goes, she plans to put her all into the Bone Marrow Drive scheduled for the day before classes end.
“Hopefully we’ll get a big turnout for the drive,” Smith says, her face lighting up in anticipation. “Hopefully, someone will be a match.”
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