As the spring semester came to a close and while most college students were cramming for finals and making summer plans, Lindsey Cunningham, a human development major, donated bone marrow to a 10-year-old boy she has never met.According to Be The Match®, 12,000 patients in the U.S. are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma for which a bone marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant from an unrelated donor may be their best or only hope of a cure. These patients do not have a matched donor in their family and look to bone marrow registries for a chance at a longer life.
Lindsey’s journey to save a life started two years ago, during her sophomore year, when she, along with other CSUSM students, faculty and staff, stopped by the Be The Match booth on her way to class to have the inside of her cheek swabbed in order to join the Be The Match marrow registry.
“It only takes a few minutes to join the Be The Match Registry, but if you’re asked to donate, you could be the only one out of millions who can save a person’s life,” said Nadya Dutchin, a Be The Match representative. “It’s especially important that more young adults like Lindsey join. People between the ages of 18 and 44 are requested by transplant doctors more than 90 percent of the time, and research shows that these donors provide the greatest chance for transplant success.”
After the experience had long become a distant memory, she received a phone call this February saying that she was a potential match for a little boy that desperately needed a donor.
“I said yes right away,” she said. “Only one in every 540 members of the Be The Match Registry will go on to donate bone marrow or PBSC (peripheral blood stem cells) to a patient, so when I was notified, I was shocked and honored to give someone a second chance at life.”
Lindsey donated bone marrow in May, but first she had to see a doctor to do blood work to confirm her match and ensure that she was healthy. Then she was required to visit an outpatient hospital over a five-day period to receive injections of a drug called filgrastim to increase the number of blood-forming cells in her bloodstream. Following five days of filgrastim injections, her blood was then removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood was then returned to her through the other arm.
“The first day was painful, during day two and three it got better, but then day four it hurt again,” she remembered, reflecting on the mild bone and muscle aches that she experienced as a side effect of the filgrastim injections.
She admits that the experience was scary at first. “I didn’t know what I was signing up for . . . and I was a little stressed out about finals, but I also knew that whatever would happen, nothing could compare to giving someone the gift of life. I knew that nothing that I was experiencing could compare to what the recipient and his family was experiencing – that’s what kept me going.”
While Lindsey may never know the identity of the boy who received her bone marrow – anonymity of both the donor and the recipient is required by federal law during at least the first year and thereafter both parties must agree to have contact – she says that her life has been changed by the experience and despite the pain and the stress she would do it again in a heartbeat. And, as a human development major, she found the process educational and interesting.
“I recommend it to everyone. Yes there was some pain but it wasn’t that bad. A week after my donation I was back into my life and I have the knowledge that I may have extended someone else’s by decades. There’s no question, I would do it again. The more people that volunteer the more lives will be saved.”
Lindsey is now a member of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in San Diego and volunteers with Be The Match to coordinate donor registry drives on campus. On Nov. 16 she is participating in the Be The Match Walk + Run in Long Beach and invites anyone to join her team or donate.
To learn how you can join, visit the Be the Match Registry.
Lindsey admits that the experience was scary at first. “I didn’t know what I was signing up for . . . and I was a little stressed out about finals, but I also knew that whatever would happen, nothing could compare to giving someone the gift of life. I knew that nothing that I was experiencing could compare to what the recipient and his family was experiencing – that’s what kept me going.”