FORT BLISS, Texas - The art of procrastination and making excuses was largely hammered out of me through serving nearly five years in the Army, but not entirely. There are still Saturdays that begin with a conscious decision to hit the gym which turn into me napping on the couch instead, books that have sat on my shelf for over a year that I promise to read soon, and family members that I've meant to call for months but somehow never find the time between frequenting the gym and reading interesting novels.
One of all the biggest things I regret procrastinating about in my life is registering to become a bone marrow donor. The idea first came to me when I heard the story of Sgt. Stephen Thompson, a soldier with 6th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, who had been diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma in late 2011. Thompson was in need of a bone marrow transplant, and the local community and Fort Bliss rallied to organize a drive to register potential donors in the National Marrow Donor Registry and C.W. Bill Young/Department of Defense Bone Marrow Donor Program in the hopes of finding him a lifesaving match.
I found out about the drive about a week after it had happened, but I called the Fort Bliss Blood Donor Center at building 7167 to try schedule an appointment to get on the registry anyway. The courteous staff informed me it was strictly a walk in process; I could come in at any time and they had plenty of kits available. Somehow, nearly 10 months of continuous postponements and excuses went by until I finally decided to make good on my personal promise.
When I informed several friends and family members about getting on the registry, most were surprisingly resistant to the idea. The most common types of questions and comments I faced involved appealing to fear, likening marrow donation more to something out of a horror film than a medical procedure. Stories and queries about excruciating pain and needles longer than my arm were tossed around casually.
To be perfectly honest, I had concerns about the process as well, but as I learned through research, the procedure is done under anesthesia and many donors only experience mild to moderate soreness in the days following donation. Sometimes bone marrow isn't needed at all. In some cases, doctors prefer to use donated peripheral blood stem cells, which are collected through a process similar to donating blood: in other words, relatively non-traumatic.
Perhaps the most awkward and difficult question to answer, for myself and for others was, "why would you be willing to go through that for a total stranger?"
It took some soul searching to find an answer, but I realized the concept of saving a life often has the sense of immediacy and proximity. Many troops wouldn’t hesitate to come to the aid of a comrade in combat, particularly a close friend in very visible pain and distress. Registering to donate marrow to a stranger is more anonymous and impersonal, but the urgency is still very real.
According to the DoD's donor website, "an estimated 30,000 children and adults in the United States, more than 500 of them in the Department of Defense, are diagnosed each year with leukemia, aplastic anemia or other fatal blood diseases."
For many of those patients, a bone marrow donation might make the difference between life and death. It might have for Sgt. Thompson. I was recently deeply saddened to discover that he lost his fight with cancer last November. He was only 32 years old, and he left behind a wife and three young children. It struck me how deep these types of disorders really cut, and I realized that for all the thousands of people waiting for a match, there were many thousands more waiting right beside them, feeling helpless to save their loved ones and holding onto hope that a stranger might be their savior.
Maybe many of us imagine these diseases are things that happen to other people in the same way deployed troops envision that combat injuries will happen to someone else. In a perfect world, these disorders wouldn’t exist and injuries wouldn’t happen on the battlefield. To counter these sad eventualities, we have programs like the National Marrow Donor Registry and combat lifesaver courses. While both save lives, both could save more with greater participation.
All it took was four cheek swabs and about five minutes of paperwork to qualify me as a potential donor, which in turn might allow me to one day save a life. In my opinion, it was much easier than attending the Army's equally valuable, weeklong combat lifesaver course.
According to the NBMP website, as of April 2012, there were nearly 10 million registered donors but there are still not enough matched donors for all patients. While there is an ongoing need for donors of all racial and ethnic backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 44, there is a particular need for donors of African American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian and multiple race origins. In order to increase the likelihood of a successful transplant, doctors use specific genetic markers to match donors to patients and “patients are more likely to match someone from their own ancestry.”
After nearly a year of putting off registering to become a donor, I am once again waiting, this time for a call that I am a possible match for a recipient. While I felt like I had all the time in the world to register to donate, thousands of people were waiting to find a match, often without the luxury of time on their side.