Monday Medical: Being a cure
During her senior year at college, Allison Mecklenburg signed up to be a marrow donor on the Be The Match Registry. It was easy to do — all that was required was a cheek swab.
One of Mecklenburg’s college supervisors was holding the drive with Bonfils Blood Center’s Colorado Marrow Donor Program in honor of her late father.
“I saw the process and roller coaster my supervisor went through in waiting to try to find a match for her father. It was something I wanted to do if I could,” said Mecklenburg, an employee at Yampa Valley Medical Center. “I definitely didn’t think that I would ever get called.”
A year later, in summer 2014, Mecklenburg learned she was a match. Because of confidentiality policies, she was only told the patient’s gender, age, condition and where the patient lived, which in this case, was outside the U.S.
Mecklenburg had just started a new job, so she decided to let the organization consider the next donor on the list. But a few months later, she learned she was the best match for the patient. With the support of her boyfriend, her family and her supervisor at work, she agreed to help.
“What personally made the decision for me … was the fact that this person could have been my own father, or my best friend,” Mecklenburg said. “It felt like an amazing opportunity to help.”
Every year, about 14,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with life-threatening conditions that can be helped with a donation of peripheral blood stem cells or bone marrow, according to Be The Match. Of those people, 70 percent do not have a compatible donor in their family.
There are 8 million donors worldwide, according to Dr. Robert Rifkin, a hematologist with Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers in Denver, who sees oncology patients in Steamboat Springs. If a match isn’t found in a patient’s home country, physicians can request a search of bone marrow registries internationally.
It isn’t hard to sign up, Rifkin said: “You could be the cure for someone.”
Donating peripheral blood stem cells is the most common method, Rifkin said. The other method — bone marrow donation — is an outpatient procedure to withdraw liquid marrow from the pelvic bone.
Mecklenburg’s donation date was set for February of this year. Since she was donating peripheral blood stem cells, she received injections of filgrastim for five days leading up to the procedure. Filgastrim increases blood-forming cells in the bloodstream.
The donation process, which took place in Denver, lasted about six hours. Some of Mecklenburg’s blood was removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood was returned through Mecklenburg’s other arm. All expenses, including Mecklenburg’s stay in Denver, were covered through the Colorado Marrow Donor Program and Be The Match.
Though Mecklenburg had pain due to the filgrastim injections, it disappeared once the donation process started. And, she said, the process wasn’t hard; she watched movies during the procedure and came back to Steamboat that afternoon. Two days later, she was up on the mountain, skiing.
Mecklenburg has received updates on the patient’s condition, but because of confidentiality, the patient will not learn about Mecklenburg until two years have passed. At that point, the patient can choose whether to contact her.
Mecklenburg doesn’t hesitate when asked whether she would donate again.
“It’s really just the best gift you can give,” she said. “It’s a part of yourself that’s helping to save someone’s life. In the end, it really was just so simple.”
For more information on the Colorado Marrow Donor Program, go to bonfils.org.
Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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