WASHINGTON D.C. - Air Force Capt. Travis Black, logistics readiness officer, never guessed that a simple mouth swab at a blood drive in his junior year of college would put him on a path to one day help save a little girl’s life.
That little girl is, then-8-year-old, Stella Monteverde-Cakebread. Before her condition was identified, Stella suffered from headaches, body aches and fever. The Cakebread family of Portland, Ore., tried every remedy they could think of, from ibuprofen, to ice packs, to yoga. Eventually, on Feb. 1, 2010, blood tests revealed that Stella had leukemia, a cancer of the blood affecting the white blood cells. Her family was devastated by the news.
The outlook was bleak. Even with a bone marrow transplant, she was given only a grim 30 percent chance of survival. Doctors forecast only a 2 percent chance of finding a matching donor because none of her family members were a match, and Stella’s condition was complicated by a genetic mutation that caused her cancerous cells to reproduce faster than her healthy cells.
During her long and arduous journey, Stella received an outpouring of love and support from all corners of her community. The greatest gift, though, came from Air Force Academy graduate Travis Black, who matched Stella perfectly on all 12 genetic markers.
Black was one of 20 donors initially identified as a potential match for Stella. After undergoing a battery of tests to whittle down candidates over the next several months, he was the top match.
The process of donating bone marrow begins when potential donors add their name to the National Marrow Donor Program registry, as Black did with a simple mouth swab, during his junior year at the Academy in 2004. Doctors then search the registry to find donors who are a potential match for their patients. Donors who are identified as a possible match are contacted and asked if they are still willing to complete the process. Those identified as the best match participate in an information session, and complete a final physical to determine if donation is the best course for the donor and the patient.
“The more research I did, the more I came to realize that I could be this little girl’s only chance,” said Black. “From her family’s perspective, I saved her life.”
Once he decided he was committed to helping Stella, Black underwent a surgical outpatient procedure where he was anesthetized, and doctors used a needle to draw liquid bone marrow from the back of his pelvic bone.
Black and Stella were required to remain anonymous to one another for one year. Black received updates on Stella at three, six, and 12 months after the procedure. At the time of the writing, the Blacks are set to travel to Portland to meet the Cakebreads for the first time.
“I feel very close to the Cakebreads, they feel just like family to me,” Black said. “Stella seems just like a little sister. It’s just crazy to think that when I put my name on that registry, Stella wasn’t even born yet. That’s an encouraging thought. It’s like it was meant to be.”
Today, according to her parents, Stella is a normal 10-year-old girl who has survived an extraordinary and deadly illness. Thanks to Black and countless others, she is stronger and wiser for it.
Since the procedure, a few things have changed about Stella—she now shares the same DNA as her donor, and because of a phenomenon that doctors call “cell memory,” she now exhibits similar behavior and personality traits.
“Her family said that since the surgery, Stella’s been a lot more goofy than she was before,” said Black. “My wife read that and said, ‘yep, that’s Travis!’”
There are many myths surrounding bone marrow donation. The Be the Match Registry, operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, dispels several of these myths on their website. Bone marrow donation is reputed to be a painful procedure with a long recovery process.
According to the website, there can be uncomfortable, but short, side effects after donating bone marrow; but most donors can return to their normal routine in as little as a couple of days or a couple of weeks, depending on the procedure.
Additionally, only five percent or less of a donor’s bone marrow is needed to save a patient’s life. The donor’s immune system stays strong, and cells regenerate within four to six weeks. No bone fragments are removed during the procedure, the majority of donations do not involve surgery, and there is never any cost to donate.
“There was an upperclassman I was talking to at the lunch table the day of the blood and bone marrow drive at the Academy,” Black recalled. “And he said he would never put his name on the registry because of how painful he’d heard the procedure was. I thought to myself, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re saving someone’s life, regardless of the discomfort, isn’t that more important? Someone’s life is on the line.’ You could be someone’s only chance. You could be someone’s perfect match.”
Anyone feeling inspired to save a life can do so at the upcoming bone marrow donor registration drive, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. April 20 at the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling Exchange. Call 202-404-3203 or visit the Be the Match website at http://marrow.org/Home.aspx for more information.