When Judy Martin signed up for the national bone marrow registry in 1995 as part of her cousin’s marrow drive, little did she expect to get a call asking her to donate her blood stem cells 10 years later.
Martin recently met the young woman who received her donated cells — and lived because of them. She came together with leukemia survivor Jona Garland in a Daly City, Calif., event arranged to call attention to the National Marrow Donor Program, or NMDP.
“I forgot I had even registered,” said Martin, who has worked at City of Hope for more than six years as lead housekeeper. “It was such a long time ago.”
According to City of Hope’s NMDP program director Jill Kendall, this is typical among people on the registry.
“Sometimes potential donors will get a call within a month, and others may not hear from us for 15 years,” Kendall said. People who register with the NMDP remain eligible donors until they turn 61.
“That’s why it’s important for registrants to notify the NMDP if they move, change their names, learn they have a disqualifying health condition or changed their mind,” she said, noting that few things are as disheartening as identifying a marrow match on the list, only to find out that the person no longer can or wants to donate.
Martin, however, went ahead with the procedure when she got the news.
“I asked what will happen if I back out, and they replied that they would have find another matching donor or the person would die — and so I donated,” Martin said.
On May 23, 2005, Martin underwent a procedure known as peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation. For five days, she was given an injection of a drug called filagrastim, which stimulates production of white blood cells and releases stem cells into the blood stream. Afterward, Martin underwent apheresis, a process that filtered the stem cells from her blood and returned the remaining blood to her body.
Kendall said that most blood stem cell donations are PBSCs, since it is much more convenient and less uncomfortable than the traditional method of collecting marrow from the pelvic bone through surgery.
Martin indicated she felt some discomfort with the process, but was primarily concerned about whether the recipient of her stem cells would survive.
The answer came more than a year later, in July 2006, when Martin received a letter saying that 24-year-old Garland was doing well.
“Just reading the letter put tears in my eyes ... it’s just a simple bag [of cells], but it has a life in there,” Martin said.
Martin and Garland corresponded over the next few months and eventually were able to meet each other for the first time in November 2006.
“It was a miracle,” Martin said, “and if I have a chance to do it again, I definitely would.”
And she encourages everyone to join as well, adding that “it’s the most beautiful gift that you can offer.”
Kendall said that ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the NMDP, making up about 20 percent of the registry, but noted that anyone can sign up.
“The test is fast and easy, involving only a simple swab of the inner cheek cells,” Kendall said. “But for many patients, a matching stem cell transplantation is their only option for survival.”
Who can donate marrow: Men and women between ages 18 and 60 who are willing to donate to any patient in need and who meet certain health guidelines.
Why is diversity important: African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Native American and mixed-ethnicity donors make up a minority of the registry. More are needed to improve the chances of matches within these populations.
How to donate: Donors may sign up directly with the NMDP, or visit City of Hope’s NMDP Donor Center or another local NMDP-affiliated donor center nearby. For more information please call City of Hope’s NMDP Donor Center at 626-301-8483 or e-mail Kim Ramos at email@example.com.