Students and faculty at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise will get the opportunity to potentially save someone’s life next month, as the UVa-Wise Science Department will host a bone marrow donor registration drive on Wednesday, Nov. 7.
This will be the third time since 2009 the science department has hosted a registration drive. Department chair Margie Tucker said that the first drive came together after the son of a faculty member in the department was diagnosed with Leukemia.
“That’s one of those things where you feel like you want to help, but what can you do to help? Early on they thought they were going to have to do a bone marrow transplant for James, and so we came up with the idea of doing a bone marrow donor registration drive,” Tucker said.
The success of the drive led to the formation of another registration drive a few years later after political science professor Eric Smith brought up the idea again.
Registering for the bone marrow donation list is a very important cause for Smith, as he not only saved another person’s life through donating, but also his own.
Smith said that he first heard of the bone marrow registration list when he was a graduate student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. His roommate there was diagnosed with leukemia, and Smith said that all of her friends and family — including himself — registered on the donation list because of her diagnosis. Smith said that no match was found though, and she later passed away due to complications from her treatments.
Years later, when Smith first began teaching at UVa-Wise, he was informed that it had been determined he was a likely match for a man in Memphis. After a series of more in-depth tests, Smith was confirmed to be a match and healthy enough to donate. Instead of having a sample of his bone marrow taken, Smith said that the doctors were able to instead get the necessary donation through drawing his blood.
Associate professor of biology Robin Woodard said that in the past bone marrow donation was conducted by taking a core of bone marrow from a donor’s hip. In recent years though, Woodard said that more often donation is occurring by drawing blood — a much less invasive process than before.
“What’s happening more, recently, is what they want are stem cells. These are cells that can form all of the blood cells. Most of those are in the bone marrow, but some are in the blood cells circulating around [the body], and they can give you a drug that enhances the number of stem cells,” Woodard said. “So it may be that all you would have to do is give a blood sample after you take this drug, and it will stimulate enough stem cell formation that they can just collect stem cells from your blood and then give it to the patient who needs it.”
Through this process, Smith said that doctors were able to draw enough stem cells for two full treatments, so one treatment was given to the match while the other was frozen for potential future use. A year later, Smith became ill and was eventually diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia.
After numerous tests and treatments, Smith one day received a call that would change his life.
“One day I’m on my way to my hematologist-slash-oncologist and my phone rings, my brother was driving me, and it’s pouring rain and the sun is kind of peeking out from the clouds — I remember it perfectly — and they were like, ‘We’ve gotten permission to treat you with your own stem cells,” Smith said. “And so I became the first person in human history — as far as they knew at Vanderbilt — to be treated for severe aplastic anemia with their own stem cells.
Ultimately that ended up saving my life. The fact that I donated saved my life. It’s a very strange series of my roommate dies, her sacrifice is what ends up causing me to donate to someone else and then that donation ends up saving my life.”
Because of his experiences, Smith urges everyone to take the time to register to be a potential donor, and he said that he is more than willing to answer any questions about donation that anyone may have.
Students and faculty will have the opportunity to get information on registering during the drive in November by visiting the tables that will be set up in the main lobby of the Slemp Student Center and in the Jefferson Lounge on the fourth floor. Tucker said that volunteers at the table will provide information on how to register through BeTheMatch.org, and what the process of giving a sample for matching will entail.
Tucker also added that it is extremely important for college-age students to register, as they can end up being the best possible donors.
“The best results for people with bone marrow transplants occur when the donor is young,” Tucker said. “I’m too old to donate. You’re exactly the right age. You need to sign up. It really is the gift of life, it truly is.”