By Leah Jones, Features Editor
Ron Bretz sat behind a table with a framed picture of a young man whom he has never met before. The young man lives in Germany and does not speak English. Despite the Atlantic Ocean and the language barrier, the young man lies intaglio with Bretz; they share the same blood.
Bretz has been in remission from leukemia for three years now. The young man in the photograph was his stem cell donor; one of two possible matches in the entire world. Due to the time differences between Germany and the United States, Bretz received the donation the very same day that the young man in the photograph donated it. “I received a stem cell transplant on September 19, 2013,” Bretz said. My blood type actually changed because it’s his stem cells that are actually producing my blood. So I used to be O positive and now I’m A positive.”
Bretz helped at the Be The Match Bone Marrow Registry held at the University of Missouri-St. Louis on October 19 at the Millennium Student Center and on October 24 at Seton Hall. Denise Mosley, community engagement representative with Be The Match Bone, teamed up with the Minority Student Nurses Association, the Student Nurses Association, the department of psychology, and Psi Chi, the international honors society for psychology majors, to host the event. The event aimed to get students to register for the Bone Marrow registry. “[On Wednesday] 51 potential donors joined the registry. [On Monday] 43 potential donors joined the registry [for a] total of 94 UMSL students,” Mosley said.
Students filled out a short questionnaire about their previous health and willingness to participate and then one of the student volunteers swabbed the inside of registrants’ cheeks for saliva samples to be matched with potential patients. In order to receive a bone marrow transplant, donors must match patients’ ancestry exactly. According to Be The Match, seventy percent of patients do not have an exact match in their family, leaving up to 14,000 patients with leukemia, sickle cell anemia, and other blood diseases ill and without donors. Be The Match helps these patients find donors who could save their lives. Fewer minorities register though, leaving those populations vulnerable. Be The Match claims that 61 percent of those registered are Caucasian, while only 10 percent are Hispanic/Latino, and 6 percent are African American/Black.
“It is important for people to know how important it is to join the registry because even though I had two matches…there are thousands of people that do not have a match,” Bretz said. “A Caucasian person has like a 97 percent chance of there being someone on the registry that is a perfect match, but if you get into all of these other races, that percentage drops down considerably.”
Navonna Smith, sophomore, nursing, and president of the Minority Student Nurses Association agreed. “It’s harder for minorities to get bone donations because not many minorities are registered. So [I knew] that was really important when [Denise] told me that because I need to make sure that I inform the members of my organization about that so they can spread the word too,” Smith said.
Contrary to popular belief, donating is not a painful process involving a long needle stuck into the hip of the donor. According to Be The Match, about 77 percent of the donations are given through peripheral stem cells in a donor’s blood. The other 23 percent of the time, generally for children, donors undergo a surgical procedure in which the donor is put under general anesthesia. “I think it’s important to make sure that people know about this and are aware about this, and that it’s really not just being stuck in the hip,” said Michelle Lloyd, senior, nursing, and volunteer coordinator for the Nursing Student Association “77 percent of the time it’s blood. And the organization or the patient’s insurance pays. It never comes out of your pocket.”
As Bretz can attest, the significance of donating is profound. “If you stay in remission for two years, the likelihood of you losing remission drops down considerably. They say if you make three years, it drops down to almost nothing. [At] five years they consider you cured. So I have less than 2 years to go to be considered cured,” he said.
Bretz recently got to connect with the smiling young German man in the picture who saved his life. For domestic donations, donors and recipients must wait one year before exchanging contact information. International donations can have longer waiting periods though. The German registry requires a two year waiting period, according to Bretz. “I think they just don’t want to put the pressure on either party because things can go wrong so they kind of like to wait,” he said.
“I actually filled out the paperwork, saying that [I was] willing to give out [my] contact information like 6 months in advance because I was really anxious to find out,” Bretz said. “So I think it was September 16, or something like that, I got an email from Be The Match saying here’s the name of your donor and his address and his birthday… And so, I immediately sent him an email.”
Bretz was going to help out at a bone marrow registration event that day, but he received an email back from his donor the next day. Bretz said that they have exchanged more extensive letters since then. “He was actually 21 years old at the time that he donated and he had actually just joined the German registry, like 2-3 months earlier,” Bretz said.
Bretz’s donor does not speak English, so his sister helps to translate the letters. Bretz hopes to one day meet the young man face-to-face. “I’m actually working on trying to get him to come over here so that we could meet him in-person. We’ve offered to pay his way and his sister’s way because she would be our translator,” he said.
In the meantime, Bretz advocates for and helps others with his renewed life by working with Be The Match. Though he retired from full-time work in 2014, Bretz works at registration events and as a volunteer courier. As a courier, he picks up the donated stem cells and bone marrow in a special cooler and brings them to the hospital where they will be transferred to a patient. The bone marrow can be transported at room temperature, but the stem cells must be kept cold. “They prefer that the stem cells be transplanted within 24 hours of the time that they’re collected,” Bretz said.
While Bretz will always remember September 19, 2013, Bretz, Mosley, Smith, and Lloyd all stressed that there are thousands of others, especially minorities, who may not get their September 19, 2013’s. “I think that even if it’s not at UMSL, anybody should get registered to be a donor,” Smith said.
UMSL students can fill out the questionnaire part of the registration at https://join.bethematch.org/UMSL.
To find out more about Be The Match, visit BeTheMatch.org