Oncology student donates to save a life

FAIRMONT – Jenna Wolfe was notified in February that an ill young woman urgently needed her help.

Wolfe, a 2008 graduate of Martin County West and an oncology student at Des Moines University, readily agreed to do what she could.

The previous December, Wolfe had volunteered to help her college oncology club hold a sign-up drive for “Be The Match Registry,” a part of the National Marrow Donor Program.

“I thought, ‘As long as I am here …'” she said, agreeing to have her cheek swabbed for DNA and her contact information put into the registry databank.

The odds of being a match for someone in need are slim, but Wolfe was excited and hoped she would someday be chosen.

Some people are on the registry for years and never become a match. Little did Wolfe know it would be less than two months before she was called.

Marrow donations take healthy blood-forming cells from one person to replace a patient’s unhealthy cells.

Only 1 in 540 members of the registry go on to donate; finding a perfect match is complicated.

According to Be The Match, someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer every four minutes in the United States, and of those needing a transplant, 70 percent do not find a match in their family.

The ill woman’s need was urgent enough that several potential matches were called that day in February, and Wolfe began the process of determining if her marrow was the missing piece that could save this stranger’s life.

Her DNA was tested for more information, then she needed a blood draw. She was given information about the donation process, given the potential side effects and asked again if she was willing to go ahead with the process.

Wolfe only knew vague details about the ill woman: she was young, she had lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system, and the need was urgent. Wolfe didn’t hesitate.

“If you are going to sign up, you have to be willing to donate,” she said.

There are three ways marrow transplants can be facilitated: cells can be taken from donated umbilical cord blood; they can be extracted from the bone; or there is a donation of peripheral blood stem cells, or PBSC.

PBSC was developed in the 1990s, and has become the most common method for extracting donor marrow cells. The process involves taking a shot for five days that encourages the bones to release the cells into the blood. Then it is simply a matter of extracting them using a machine similar to blood plasma donations.

“Everyone has this misperception that they will be put to sleep and have a huge needle in their hip,” said Wolfe, noting the process was easy. “I would do it again.”

Still, Wolfe was nervous when she was finally given the go ahead to make her donation.

The medication was administered by a home health nurse every day for five days, and could have left her with a headache or fatigue. Wolfe was getting the shots during final week in her first year of medical school. She only experienced bone soreness, however, and passed her finals easily before donating the next day.

It took four hours to cycle her blood outside her body, through a machine to extract the desired cells, and return the rest to her.

A special carrier waited at the hospital for Wolfe’s donation to be complete, after which he hand-delivered the cells to the recipient.

Wolfe experienced no side effects from the procedure, other than a curiosity about the woman whose life she impacted.

“I would like to meet her,” she said. “I am really curious about how it turns out.”

During the first year after her donation, Wolfe is allowed to anonymously contact the recipient through the registry, giving only the vaguest of details, such as her gender, occupation and age. Wolfe hasn’t contacted the woman yet, knowing she is in the middle of a long recovery stage.

Wolfe said her family was nervous about the process, but supportive. Her experience has even convinced a friend and her family to sign up on the registry.

“The need for it is tremendous,” Wolfe said. “You can literally change a life.”

As a oncology student, Wolfe said it has been interesting for her to be involved in the treatment process.

“It was easier than I expected,” she said. “It has been cool to see the whole process.

For more information about Be The Match Registry, visit www.bethematch.org