Students seek marrow donors

A student group is clearing up misconceptions about donating bone marrow.

Hailey Colwell

University of Minnesota student Carl Johnson joined the national bone marrow donor registry in 2008 when he was serving in the U.S. Navy.

Three years later, he learned he was a perfect match for a 50-year-old man with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in Finland.

Because Johnson donated his marrow, the Finnish man is now 90 percent recovered.

Johnson, an economics junior, is now working with the 1-year-old University student group Be the Match on Campus to
increase awareness and clarify misconceptions about bone marrow donation.

Although most students know about giving blood, donating bone marrow is an entirely different and largely unknown process, group president and advertising senior Greta Diers said.

To join Be the Match’s national bone marrow donor registry, people only need to take a swab of their cheek cells. If someone is a potential match, a doctor will call them.

Ethnicity is the No. 1 factor in determining a bone marrow match, Johnson said, so the group hopes to tap into the diverse University student body to recruit potential donors for the registry.

While white patients with blood cancer have a 93 percent likelihood of finding a matching donor, Hispanic or Latino patients have a 72 percent chance, according to Be the Match data. For black patients, there’s a 66 percent likelihood.

Many think marrow donation is an extremely painful process that requires a spinal tap, Johnson said, but the group is trying to tell students that isn’t the case.

In bone marrow donations, donors are put under anesthesia and marrow is extracted from their pelvic bones, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Donors normally return home the same day and feel soreness in their back for a few days to a week.

For another type of marrow donation, called a peripheral blood stem cells donation, donors are given a series of shots that boost blood-forming stem cell growth. The injections can cause side effects like headaches, bone and muscle pain or nausea.

After five days of the shots, donors’ blood is drawn from one arm and goes through a machine that removes the stem cells and replaces their blood back into their arm. The process usually takes four to six hours.

To reorient University students’ perceptions of bone marrow donation, Be the Match members plan to go into classrooms and student group meetings to talk to small groups in person.

Having just five minutes with a small group can help clear up misconceptions, Johnson said, and show students that donating is easier than they may think.

“It’s a no-brainer because you are the cure for somebody else’s cancer,” Johnson said.

Diers said college students are at an optimal age to donate because their cells are healthy and produce rapidly.

“There’s such a huge potential here,” she said.

The group added more than 550 students to the donor registry last year, Diers said, and hopes to add 2,000 this year while fundraising $5,000 to help offset the cost of testing cheek swab samples.

All of the group’s board members have their own personal reason for being in the group, she said.

Diers joined because her mother needed a bone marrow transplant. Her mother had her transplant a little more than a week ago, she said, and now has a brand new immune system.

“She’s starting over,” Diers said.

Being involved with Be the Match on Campus, she said, makes her feel like she’s fighting alongside her mother.

“For a lot of cancers, there isn’t something like that,” she said, “but for this one there is.”

Group advisor Kristine Reed started working with the national Be the Match donor program — the student group’s parent organization, located in Northeast Minneapolis — after surviving a bone marrow transplant.

It’s important for students to know that when they join the registry, they’re not just helping people in Minnesota, she said.

“It’s not just a local impact,” she said. “It’s an international impact.”