Swab your cheek, save a life
By Senior Airman Alexis Siekert, 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 11, 2013
OSAN AIR BASE-Republic of Korea -- Bone marrow is paramount in the treatment of those with leukemia, aplastic anemia or other fatal blood diseases and the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program is a DoD lead program bringing bone marrow registration directly to service members.
"A lot of people have a misconception that they will donate that day, but they're just volunteering to have their cheeks swabbed for a DNA test," explained Master Sgt. Taira Lawrence, 51st Fighter Wing Executive Services superintendent and Wing Staff Agency registry representative. "If they are matched with someone in need, they will be contacted then, but they are not obligated to do anything. Registers can opt out of donating until the day of the donation."
In 2012, there was a study done for those in the registration as potential bone marrow donators, Lawrence said. The study showed the desperate need for a wider demographic of potential donors as the vast majority of those in the registry are Caucasian. The wider demographic is especially important as the program is international.
The registry process includes four oral swabs collected from the cheek after completing a simple registration form. The swab samples are then tested to determine the human leukocyte antigen or tissue type. The results with unique identification numbers are added to the National Marrow Donor Registry.
"We're not only helping those in the states, but around the world," she said. "If there is an opportunity for me to save a life and it's not going to kill me, I will take advantage of that opportunity."
Master Sgt. Bobby Jones, 731st Air Mobility Squadron unit security manager, was one of the few to have a match and recently donated blood marrow through the program.
"I registered in the bone marrow program during a drive in 2003 at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.," he said. "I was at work when I got the phone call saying I was a match in May of 2012."
Over the phone he was interviewed for any immediate disqualifying criteria. Then, he was scheduled for blood work at the base clinic that same week. With his recipient in immediate need of the bone marrow, a week after being contacted he was flown to Washington D.C., where the donation takes place, for more tests. He was then flown back to base before returning to D.C. to start the donation process the following week.
According to the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program, there are two procedures to donate bone marrow. There is the traditional procedure with the marrow extracted directly from the pelvic bone while the donor is under general or local anesthesia, yet this procedure is used less than five percent of the time. The other and more common procedure is called Peripheral Blood Stem Cells which involves daily injections of a drug called Filgrastim for four days before the collection and a fifth injection on the day of collection. The blood is then removed through a sterile needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates the blood stem cells. The remaining blood is returned to the donor through the other arm.
Jones donated his life-saving bone marrow through the non-evasive PBSC process.
"For five days I received a shot in each arm," he said. "The shots make your body produce more blood stem cells. An hour after the fifth day of shots they extract the blood. It takes about 4 hours, but I just laid back and watched two movies."
The only side effect was he really felt bloated on the last few days of injections, he said. After the procedure though, he felt back to normal.
"The five-day trip to D.C. was a permissive temporary duty at no expense to me," he recounted. "They'll fly a guest to you from wherever. Your guest could be a spouse, friend or family member, it doesn't matter, and for the first three days you are allowed to site see--you feel fine. On the last two days you just have to take it easy and refrain from drinking alcohol and eating fatty foods."
With the program being international, Jones found out his recipient was from France. After a year and if both parties consent, he will be able to have open communication with him.
"Something that I didn't know was less than one percent of the people on the registry will ever be matched as a donator--it is an extremely small number," he explained. "Registering doesn't obligate you to do anything. Even if you are unable to donate blood, you may still be able to donate marrow. It feels good to have helped; I have no regrets. I am glad I did it."