Be a Potential Lifesaver

Written by Kay Hubbard.

Get 'Swabbed' on March 7

For the most part, Panola College’s annual Spring Fling on March 7 fits the dictionary definition of a “fling” pretty well: “a short period of unrestrained pursuit of one’s wishes or desires.” The two-hour event from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. is filled with food, fun, and games. Jody Harris, Student Activities Coordinator at Panola College, says, “Twice a year—at Fall Frolic and Spring Fling—we give students a few hours of pure fun and camaraderie as a short break from studying for mid-term exams.

It also gives us an opportunity to showcase some of the organizations on campus. This year, we are also adding a ‘Senior Preview’ in conjunction with the event. Several area high schools are sending a group of seniors to take a look at our campus and participate in Spring Fling.”

However, there are a couple of very important and potentially lifesaving opportunities at Spring Fling that both students and others in the community can be involved in. One is the blood drive conducted each year at both Spring Fling and Fall Frolic, and of course replenishing our area’s blood supply is always a critical need.

The other, probably less well-known, lifesaving opportunity at Spring Fling is a “swab event” sponsored by DKMS, an international nonprofit organization whose ultimate goal is to delete blood cancer and other blood disorders. Such disorders include leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, sickle cell anemia, aplastic anemia, diamond blackfan anemia, and others in which the bone marrow is not working properly.

Panola College students and anyone in the community between the ages of 18 and 55 and in generally good health will have the opportunity to potentially become a lifesaver—a possible bone marrow or stem cell donor—by filling out a very simple form with contact information and then doing a simple swab on the inside of the cheek with a long Q-tip type swab.

For non-students or others in the community who would find it more convenient, a second swab location will be set up in the First United Methodist Church Activity Center, also from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. the same day. Prospective registrants can also visit the DKMS website at www.dkms.org to get more information or order a free at-home swab kit.

DKMS began in Germany but is now active throughout the United States, Poland, and the United Kingdom as well. The initials DKMS stand for German words which loosely translate “German Bone Marrow Donor Center,” but it is much more than a donor center. The organization works to (1) create awareness about the need for bone marrow and stem cell donors; (2) recruit these donors to provide people with a second chance at life; (3) raise funds to match donor registration costs; (4) to support the improvement of therapies through research; and (5) support patients from day one of their diagnoses.

As mentioned, the way donors are identified is through a simple swab of the inside of the cheek. Amy Roseman, a donor recruitment coordinator for DKMS in Dallas, is overseeing the local swab events. She says that since DKMS became active in the United States in 2004, about 7.8 million people have registered to be potential lifesavers. Of those, 67,736 have actually provided a patient in need that second chance at life. She reiterates the main goals of the organization and of her job: raising awareness of the need for donors and recruiting people to register to become donors. “We do not ever charge anyone money to swab and register,” she adds. “We have a Development Department that does most of our fundraising. Of course donations are always welcome and every dollar is helpful, but a monetary donation is never necessary for someone to swab and register.”

Amy points out that when a patient receives a bone marrow or stem cell donation, he/she gets a whole new immune system. She adds that the need is great; every three minutes someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with some sort of blood cancer, but each day only about 19 donors are found to provide what might be needed to save those lives.

She also says that all of us have a genetic twin who is not related to us, and a donor has to be an absolute genetic twin to the recipient. “I have three sisters,” she says, “but only a 25 percent chance of finding a match for me in my own family. Most people have to rely on a stranger. Matches are linked to ethnicity, so therefore most likely among those who share the same ancestry.”

Amy says that registration for potential donors is quick and easy—filling out a simple registration form with contact information and doing a quick swab of the inside of the cheek. A potential donor must be between 18 and 55 years of age and in good general health. Research has shown that those age perameters offer the patient the best chance of a successful transplant. A registrant’s information stays in the bone marrow donor registry database until age 61.

Amy explains how the process works from that point: “When you send your swabs back to DKMS, their lab analyzes your tissue type, and your cheek cells are tested for HLA tissue markers. HLA stands for Human Leukocyte Antigents, or characteristics of human white blood cells. These protein ‘markers’ are found on most cells in your body. Your immune system uses HLA markers to determine which cells belong in your body and which do not. Of course, the best transplant outcomes occur when the patient’s and the donor’s HLA closely match.”

She adds, “One would think that a family member would be the best match, but that is not always true. You inherit half of your HLA markers from your mother and half from your father, and that means you and your sibling have only about a 25 percent chance of having exactly the same HLA characteristics.  It also means that most patients—about seven out of 10—are unable to have a donation from a sibling, and an unrelated donor is required. This donor should ideally be a perfect HLA match. Therefore, the more people who register, the better the chances for patients who are waiting for their lifesaving match!”

Amy continues, “Once HLA markers are identified, your tissue type is entered anonymously into the U.S. national bone marrow donor registry–the lifesaver list—and assigned a donor number. The database is linked to global registries, searchable for any patient around the world. Once you're on the registry, you are on standby to save a life. You could be called as a potential match within weeks of registering, or it could take years. There is a good chance that you may never be called, but if you DO get called, there is also a good chance you are the ONLY one who can save that patient’s life. On average, less than one percent of people on the registry will actually donate to a patient.”

Amy explains that if you are fortunate enough to qualify as a match for a patient, there are two ways you can donate and help that person get a second chance at life. The patient's doctor will select the method that promises the best outcome for the patient.

The Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) Donation is the method used in 75 percent of cases. It is a non-surgical, outpatient procedure that collects blood stem cells via the bloodstream. It takes about four to eight hours on one to two consecutive days. During the procedure, your blood is drawn through one arm and passed through a machine that filters out the blood stem cells. The remaining blood is returned to you through your other arm.

The Bone Marrow Donation method is used in about 25 percent of cases, generally when the patient is a child. It is a one- to two-hour surgical procedure performed under anesthesia, so no pain is experienced during the donation. Marrow cells are collected from the back of your pelvic bone using a syringe. Some donors might experience some pain, bruising and stiffness for up to two weeks after donation, but usually within a week of donating, are able to return to work, school and most regular activities. Bone marrow will completely replenish itself within three to six weeks.