Save a life

  • Published
  • By Paul Firman
  • Air Force Negotiation Center of Excellence
When it comes to saving a life, seldom is it something you can plan. You might witness a car crash and spring into action. Most would probably do what they could to help. However, what if you could actually be part of a plan to save a life?

I retired from the Air Force nearly three years ago. The retirement ended an almost 23-year career full of outstanding memories and experiences. The opportunity to serve one's country for almost a quarter century was an honor and privilege.

I was proud to be able continue as a civil servant and now work as a member of the Air Force Negotiation Center of Excellence at Maxwell.

One day, my office phone rang, much the same as any day. It didn't take long to figure out this was different, when I heard, "Hello Sergeant Firman. This is a coordinator with the [Department of Defense] Marrow Donor Program."

I thought, "This couldn't be good." The coordinator said, "You may be a match for a 26-year-old man with acute myelogenous leukemia who is in need of a stem cell transplant."

Then came the blow... "Are you still willing to donate" she asked.

Wait a minute, I thought, she doesn't know I'm retired. I was much younger when I registered. They must have the wrong person. People sign up for this stuff all the time, but come o, no one ever really gets a phone call right?

Before I could catch myself, I said, "I'm still willing," although I hung on to the word that I "may" be a match.

After some testing and examinations, the donor representative called back and said I was a match. The patient's transplant center asked me to consider a donation of peripheral blood stem cells.

Peripheral what?

I paused a moment. This was not a brother, a sister, or a close relative. I didn't even know this person and for privacy reasons, all they could tell me was the recipient was a man from Italy. They gave me an option to back out, but I knew I couldn't.

It didn't take long to learn what a peripheral donation meant. The patient's doctor can ask for a specific type of donation -- either bone marrow or an experimental process called a peripheral blood stem cell donation, PBSC. Both your marrow and blood contain these important cells but, in order to be able to donate using PBSC, the cells need to be moved out of the bone marrow and into the bloodstream.

I would need to have an experimental drug injected into my body. I wasn't overly enthusiastic, but when I learned the patient's chance of a successful transplant can be tied to the donation method selected, it was a little easier. I also learned the procedure has a 10-year track record and thousands had already participated.

Also, a little research on my part uncovered that a government civilian employee can use up to seven days of paid leave each calendar year (in addition to annual and sick leave) to serve as a bone-marrow donor.

My PBSC donation required five days of injections in Washington, D.C. to "encourage" the stem cells to move from the bone marrow into the bloodstream. On the fifth day, the transplant team used a process called apheresis to extract the stem cells. Moments later, the cells were packed on ice and shipped to Italy.

About a month has gone by since the donation, and I didn't grow the third eye I had worried about. I did puff up like a blowfish the day after the procedure. The coordinator said this was not a normal side effect, so it might have been the Tastykakes I was hammering during the trip. Regardless, the ridicule I endured from my wife and kids was a small price to pay when compared to being able to help save a life.

I hope you'll consider registering with the National Marrow Donor Program. Years might pass, and you may forget you registered, but knowing you're part of a greater plan is what's important. Does one person count? Who knows, but maybe you could be that one rare match out of more than 9.5 million registry members.

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