Potential to save lives inside all: Airmen share accounts of donation

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kali L. Gradishar
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Boxes were piled high with cotton swabs and registration forms as numerous people took the first step to become bone marrow donors at a registry drive April 28 held in conjunction with Incirlik's Spring Fling. In doing so, those registrants rang in the spring season by increasing the odds for someone fighting a life-threatening illness to live a better life.

Two members of Team Incirlik shared their experience with donating.

From swab to swap

Eighteen years ago while in officer training school, Joel Elsbury, now a lieutenant colonel and 425th Air Base Squadron commander, took four swabs and brushed each in the upper and lower portions of his cheek, filled out the required registry form, and sealed an envelope to be sent to the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Center in Washington D.C.

"I got on the registry in 1994, and then I went 12 years without hearing a thing. The thing is, you have a one in 60,000 chance in actually matching somebody; and so you could sit there forever on that registry and never get called," said Elsbury. "In 2006, my family and I moved to D.C., and shortly after we (moved) and settled in, I got a phone call that I'd matched a recipient."

Elsbury started the preliminary paperwork to move along in the donor process and realized his experience would differ what he expected. Rather than donating marrow, he would donate stem cells.

"It's probably not new anymore; this was six years ago. But at the time it was very new," Elsbury recalled. "It's a completely different process. ... The pain is different. The pain is up front.

"It's a simple process," he explained. "They give you a shot, and the shot causes your body to speed up. And so you grow more stem cell for seven days - and it hurts."

Lt. Col. Lawrence Hicks, 39th Mission Support Group deputy commander, agreed that donating can be painful. His experience started at roughly the same time as Elsbury's, but Hicks' path led him in a polar direction.

As a lieutenant stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., in the mid-1990s the base was running a bone marrow donor drive much like the drive at Incirlik's Spring Fling. After swabbing his cheeks and providing registry information, Hicks' name was placed on the donor list.

"Actually some years later, I had forgotten all about that I had signed up" to be a bone marrow donor, he said.

It wasn't until Hicks' was deployed in September 1999 when he heard from his wife that he received a package from the marrow donor center that he remembered.

His wife opened the package to find a message that Hicks had the opportunity to save a life.

Following his deployment and making a permanent change of station move, Hicks began the process to donate his bone marrow.

"At this time, I was stationed at Anderson Air Force Base, Guam. They worked with the medical folks at Anderson (and) myself. They worked with the medical folks at the Navy hospital on the island of Guam. They sent over a huge kit so they could do more DNA sampling, which essentially a lot of blood they had to draw from me," Hicks explained.

The kit was shipped off, the samples analyzed, and in early 2000, Hicks was designated a donor.

The donor to recipient relationship

"A lot of people asked why I was doing it," said Hicks. "They'd say, 'Do you know this individual?'"

He answered no.

"To me it really didn't matter. It was just somebody in need, and I was willing to help them out. ... I would always hope that someone would do the same thing for me, for my family, or for my children if one of us was in need of bone marrow," he revealed.

"Unfortunately, the gentleman who was receiving the bone marrow, his health started to deteriorate really badly so we had to put it off, put it off, put it off. And then finally, his health started to get a little better so he was able to undergo the procedure," Hicks recalled.

According to the National Marrow Donor Program website, the donation process includes either general or local anesthesia. Then, the doctor makes a few small incisions in the lower back and inserts a hollow needle through the incisions to the pelvic bone. A syringe is then used to remove marrow.

"I went in, they put me under, and the next thing I know I'm in the recovery room," said Hicks. "In my particular case, after I had donated, (the marrow donor center gives) you updates because you can't meet the person you donated to until one year from the date of donation."

Every month, a message came stating the recipient was doing well, that he was recovering.

"One day they called, and the gentleman's tenor was just a little different than it usually was, and he said, "Mr. Hicks, I'm sorry to tell you that he passed away. ... Even though your bone marrow donation helped for a period of time, he just had way too many other issues."

For both Elsbury and Hicks, their experiences brought on a rollercoaster of emotions - elation, hope, sadness, anger, worry. But their stories differ immensely.

"Some young major from the United States of America happened to have the same DNA," Elsbury exclaimed. "Again, a one in 60,000 chance that he would have ever found anybody that matched him. ... This man suffered from leukemia for years of his life and then one day he hit the lottery."

The man to receive Elsbury's stem cells, Walter, lived in Germany. Strangers. Two men from different countries. But they matched.

"His leukemia went into remission, and he was actually able to return to a lot of his normal activities. I got one letter from him one year that said that he was going to get to go on vacation with his family for the first time in years," Elsbury recalled.

"I got that letter the same day I got my promotion notification to lieutenant colonel. I can tell you that letter meant infinitely more to me than my promotion. And I'm not saying my promotion wasn't important - it was great," he said, "but it was much better news that Walter was doing well and was going to get to spend time with his family on vacation - something he hadn't been able to do in a long, long time."

After receiving an injection to speed the rate of growing stem cells, Elsbury endured seven days of pain before being relieved of the extra cells.

"I would be lying to say that it's not a painful process, (but) ... my seven days was nothing compared to what Walter's gone through," he said.

Sometime later, however, Elsbury received a notification while deployed to Iraq that Walter regressed and needed white blood cells. With approval of both his Air Force and Army chains of command, Elsbury rushed to Walter's aid.

"I'll be honest, I haven't heard anything from Walter in a while, but what I have heard from the Bill Young Marrow program is as long as they haven't had any notifications, that's great news - Walter's doing good," Elsbury said.

What it means to be a donor

"People ask me how much it hurts, and the answer is infinitely less than it hurts to have cancer," claimed Elsbury. "I had a grandmother who died of cancer, and in her last weeks they were strapping her to the bed to keep her from harming herself from all of the pain that she was suffering.

"To know that if somebody would have matched her - if there was somebody on this planet that matched her that would have gotten on the registry - then she could have been with us for longer," he added.

Elsbury mentioned he occasionally considers the effect of his donation - that a man lives because of him.

"There's a guy walking around the planet who's alive today because of the goo that's created inside of me - I hate to put it that way. But I think there's a guy that's alive because I registered," he said. "It was absolutely worth it."

"We have people out there that in some weird miraculous way, we match. ... It might take 15 minutes to an hour to get on the registry, and you may never hear from Bill Young again," Elsbury said. "But you might. You might get called. ... The thing is, the more people we register, the better we work those odds."

Hicks agreed that for him, though his recipient didn't survive, donating was still worth it.

"It's nothing to sneeze at, but then again nothing to be concerned about if you're thinking about being a donor," said Hicks. "It is painful, but when you put it on a scale of what the recipient's going through, it's low on the scale."

Then he asked himself if he would do it again. He would.

"In spite of this gentleman not making it, that's not to say the next person wouldn't," he said. "I would still do it all over again for anyone."

For more information on becoming a donor, visit http://www.dodmarrow.org/.