"Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." - John 15:13
In September of 2021, I got a phone call from an out of State number. I didn’t answer it, writing it off as spam. When I got out of work I listened to the voicemail and was even more suspicious.
“Hi, Ashley, this is Jess from Be the Match Bone Marrow Registry and we wanted to reach out because you have been emergently matched with a potential recipient. Please give me a call back if you are interested in proceeding.”
In 2015, I had seen a presentation at the Sussex County Community College regarding registering for the bone marrow registry by simply sending a cheek swab through the mail. Additionally, a fellow student spoke about her experience of donating to a child with cancer, who survived because of her donation.
I was inspired. So, I grabbed a packet, completed the swab, sent it in, and well... never heard anything back.
When I called the number back in September of 2021, I was asked to verify my social security number. My police-officer “Spidey” senses went off immediately and I refused, stating it had been years since I had signed up and I had never heard anything from the registry. The advocate re-assured me that she had the information and could send me a copy of my original paperwork; which I asked her to do. When I got the scanned paperwork with all of my information and signature, dated 2015, I was relieved and grateful for the chance to potentially save a life.
I called back immediately for details. The person I was matched with was already in the process of having their immune system stripped in order to receive donated stem cells, but their best match donor had backed out of the process. I was the second-best match in the database, and we had to move quickly.
I was sent for bloodwork, a physical, and additional ranges of testing within a week of getting the first call, to ensure I was healthy enough to donate. My stem cells, after all, would be used to rebuild this other human’s immune system. I was all in.
When I was cleared as a healthy and able donor, I started my filgrastim, an injection used by many cancer patients to increase the body’s ability to create white blood cells to fight infection and disease. In essence, this drug would double my stem cell count so I could donate white blood cells, as well as, have a reserve to protect myself.
My good friend, Juan, was already injection trained and was able to give me the injections at his home. This made the process of getting the injections better than if I had to travel to the clinic in central Jersey.
The injections have pretty intense side effects, but throughout the entire process I remained grateful, because I could simply not imagine what the human in need of my stem cells was going through or feeling.
I was told that I needed to be sure when I agreed to go through with this process, because if I backed out, the human waiting for these potentially lifesaving stem cells could die without them, as they had already undergone the process of stripping their immune system in preparation. I took the gravity of the situation very seriously and reassured the agency that I was all in; no matter what.
On day five of the injection process, my white blood cell counts were high enough to donate. Be the Match booked myself and my good friend, Patrick, plane tickets to Washington D.C., where we would stay for two days in order to complete the donation process.
September 25, 2021 came; with it, an alarm set for 5:30am. I ordered an Uber after taking a quick shower and upon arrival, awaited an advocate at the front doors of George Washington University hospital. I was escorted to a room where I received my final Filgrastim injection and was hooked up to numerous machines.
Having a fear of needles and passing out, my blood pressure was high which made the start of the donation process more difficult. The flow was extremely slow and the doctor’s warned me that if it remained this slow, they would have to start an additional central line in my neck or chest. They said to focus on remaining calm.
When focusing on remaining calm didn’t work, a little sedative did the trick and I slept for the next four hours while the apheresis session took place. When I woke up, we were just about done and I could see a single bag full of my stem cells. It was a wildly cool experience.
Once I was unhooked, they took that single bag, placed it in a cooler, and rushed it to where it needed to go. I don’t know if my recipient was at that facility or if that bag was being transported somewhere across the country or world…
A year after my donation, I received an update that my recipient was alive. I remember the hope I felt that day, thinking: "Damn, I'm so grateful that they are okay."
On May 3, 2023, I received a call that my recipient had passed away.
My heart did break a little bit, but that connection I felt with the recipient and their family, even though we have never spoken or met, was intense.
I am sharing this with all of you to encourage healthy people to join the Be the Match Bone Marrow Registry, today. You can learn more about signing up here: https://bethematch.org/support-the-cause/donate-blood-stem-cells/
Although challenging in many ways, each of us has the chance to save a life and it's a chance we should not take for granted. I was given the chance to send my condolences anonymously via email and selfishly, I needed that chance because it provided me with an opportunity to process the loss of this human’s life - one I had never met but shared a special bond with. Here's what I wrote:
I hope as you read these words, you’re simply moved or inspired to love one another, even those we may not know, because after all, that's why we are all here to begin with.
Happy Friday, my Friends. I love you!
Until Next Time,