He had to wait years, but 21-year-old Clayton resident Jacob Strickland finally got to help save a life – the life of a man he never met.
In late February, a worker with Be the Match, a group that matches donors with people with blood disorders, ran Strickland’s blood through a special filter for nine hours to gather life-saving bone marrow stem cells. They went to a 66-year-old man fighting blood cancer.
“They don’t tell you a lot about the recipient because they want to protect privacy,” said Jacob’s father, Dean.
Three years ago, Alex Lee, a member of Horne Memorial United Methodist Church, developed leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant. To help find a match for him, the church partnered with Be the Match and held a marrow drive, screening about 100 people, including Strickland.
The would-be donors simply got their cheeks swabbed with cotton for a DNA sample, and their files went into Be the Match’s donor registry.
“They didn’t actually find a match (for Lee) through our group of people, but once you’re in the system through Be the Match, they will find other people who need a bone marrow transplant,” Strickland said.
About five of them ended up being matches, and three of them eventually donated bone marrow.
Years went by and Strickland didn’t hear anything from the organization. Then six months ago, he did. Be the Match asked if he was still willing to donate, and he was. Then he had additional blood work done to verify how close a match he was.
“It’s a pretty small sacrifice to help someone out,” Strickland said. Even though he didn’t know the recipient, he said it didn’t matter. “It’s still a drive to help someone out,” he said.
Strickland sat while Be the Match workers injected him with a drug that would increase the production of stem cells manufactured in the hip bone. This gave him a slight headache and made him a little tired, but “other than that, it really wasn’t bad at all,” he said.
Then he waited in a hospital bed while workers ran his blood through a filter.
“He was absolutely great,” said Be the Match’s Calista Tyson. “He never hesitated with everything that was required of him to donate.”
Donors, she said, don’t get paid and “interrupt their day and their time to go in for physical exams and blood work and the donation, all of that.” But Strickland wasn’t bothered.
“One thing I learned is that it wasn’t as bad as a lot of people made it out to be,” he said.
People had told him how painful the process would be, but that wasn’t the case. “They actually made me very comfortable,” Strickland said. “It was very easy.”
“I think he’s a hero, just being willing to do it,” Dean said with pride in his son.
In years past, bone marrow donors had to give actual bone marrow from their hips in a procedure involving surgery and a long recovery. But now, most donations occur they way Strickland gave, by filtering out the necessary stem cells from the blood. It’s called peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation.
“The cells that the patient needs are manufactured in your hip and then released into your blood stream,” said Be the Match’s Addie Sanders. “It can actually cure the patient.”
And even if donors give from the bone marrow in their hip, doctors put them to sleep during the procedure, and they can usually go home the same day. They may feel some discomfort in their hip for a couple of days or soreness in their lower back for a week or two, but that is all. The marrow replaces itself in just a few weeks.
And, Strickland said, “being able to help someone is worth the pain you’d be going through.”
Be the Match has millions of people in the registry, but not everyone can find a match, Sanders said. “When someone searches our registry, they are looking at about 14 million possible matches, and sometimes they still don’t find one,” she said.
And not every potential donor gets a call. Some get found quickly, but “other people, like myself, have been on for almost nine years and have never gotten a call,” Sanders said.
It’s because DNA is so varied, and the donor must match the recipient’s exact DNA markers, called human leukocyte antigens.
“It’s the same DNA markers that decide your eye color, your hair color,” Sanders said.
Donors must be between the ages of 18 and 44 and meet the health guidelines of Be the Match. To find out more, go to bethematch.org.