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How to save a life: The importance of becoming a bone marrow donor

Bone cancer and disorders are fought each day by millions of people, yet the bone marrow registry has less than 1% of the world’s population registered. Make a difference and save someone’s life with a small act of swabbing.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/parkc25/" target="_self">Christan Park</a>

Christan Park

March 15, 2023

Each year, over 720,000 people die from blood cancers and disorders, but less than 1% of the world’s population is registered to be a donor. By registering to become a donor, the chance to save a life is made possible.

When someone has blood cancer or a disorder, it attacks the body’s bone marrow, which is where red blood cells are produced. Red blood cells are crucial as they carry oxygen around. Common blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma eat away at the bone marrow, not allowing the body to create red blood cells and causing life-threatening conditions. 

When someone is diagnosed with blood cancer or a blood disease, typically, one’s family is tested to see if they match human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing. HLA is your body’s immune response to foreign substances. By having the same HLA typing, the recipient’s body will have a lower chance of rejecting the new bone marrow and accepting it as their own. However, there is only a 30% chance of a family member being a match, causing doctors to search the bone marrow registry. 

That’s where the public comes in and why everyone’s help is necessary. The bone marrow registry is a database of willing individuals who are able to donate bone marrow by gathering their information into one place. 

Despite being a global registry, only a small percent of people are registered. A study by the Rhode Island Medical Society found that the majority of people don’t join the database because of false myths, such as all bone marrow transplants require difficult surgeries, it is very costly, and bone marrow drives require blood tests. All of those assumptions are incorrect. 

In truth, the process couldn’t be more simple. The only requirements are that a donor must be between the ages 18 to 60 and have no preexisting health conditions. Once an individual turns 60, their information is deleted from the database. 

To join the database, a potential donor swabs each of their cheeks for two minutes, writes his name and contact information on it, and then, is done. Now there’s a chance to save a life. 

If an individual on the registry is called, donating marrow does not require surgery, except in very few circumstances. The majority of the time, the donor will be in a hospital bed as his blood circulates through a machine then back into his body. During this time, it can be a break from work or studies, along with the worthwhile feeling of saving a life. 

Prior to donating, however, a donor will need to come into the hospital to receive shots to increase stem cell levels. During the week prior and following the donation, many donors shared they had flu-like symptoms and/or back or hip pain depending on the type of donation done. 

Lastly, when an individual signs up to become a donor, he does so through a bone marrow organization that will offer assistance and cover any cost necessary, making time the only thing to give.

Making a Difference

Starting from a simple request ten years ago, the Sternblitz family – David, Susan, Jordan and Hallie – have become leaders and examples in

The Sternblitz family received the Community Service Award at the 2022 DKMS Awards Breakfast. (Photo courtesy of the Sternblitz Family)

the importance of joining the bone marrow registry through their commitment and dedication as donors and advocates.  

In 2011, Susan Sternblitz was offered the position of Volunteer Coordinator from a friend in need of bone marrow, to which she agreed. She and David Sternblitz were swabbed and just a year later, D. Sternblitz was called to become a potential donor. 

“I was very surprised but when I found out I really had a chance to save a life and make a difference, I was very excited to do it,” said D. Sternbitz. “You read the risks, and you get a little bit nervous, but in my mind, it was a chance to really make a difference.”

With that mindset, D. Sternblitz traveled to Georgetown, Washington, D.C., to donate his bone marrow. His donation was a six-hour process, but after a couple movies, he was done and most importantly left with the feeling of saving a life. 

“The minute I finished, there was somebody standing there about to jump on an international flight to the UK and take those stem cells to the woman who needed it,” said D. Sternblitz. “I really felt like things were real at that point and realized that I really made a difference in somebody’s life.”

Though D. Sternblitz was unable to meet his recipient personally, they exchanged several letters in which he learned that she was able to attend her child’s wedding in South Africa due to his donation. Hearing this, he felt that his donation was worth it and that she was able to enjoy more quality time with her family, he said. 

Since the donation, the Sternblitzs’ have held multiple drives and supported the bone marrow campaign in every way they could. 

Hallie Sternblitz was also part of the DKMS Youth Advisory Board and has advocated about the importance of registering from a very young age. 

“I was the five-year-old going around and trying to get people to register,” said H. Sternblitz. “So many people suffer from [blood cancers] and I want to get the message out there that it is so easy to save somebody’s life.”

Though many declined to state that they already donate blood, H. Sternblitz believes that this is a different, unique, and simple action that can save someone. Believing this, she swabbed her brother, Jordan Sternblitz, as soon as he turned 18. 

A few years following his swabbing, Jordan was asked if he was willing to become a donor. Without a doubt in mind, he said yes. 

“Even though it’s a small inconvenience in your day, it’s a small thing that you can do,” said J. Sternblitz. 

As a family, the Sternblitzs’ have been able to donate two times, hold multiple drives, and were awarded the Community Leadership Award at the 2022 DKMS Awards Breakfast. 

“Receiving the award was so wonderful, but honestly, we don’t need an award to do this,” said S. Sternblitz. “We do this because there’s a need and it helps save lives.” 

Like the Sternblitz family, you can make a difference just by signing up. To learn more about how you can make a difference and save a life, try volunteering at swab stations, getting swabbed yourself, and/or spreading awareness by talking to your friends and family and posting on social media.

Visit https://www.dkms.org/ or https://bethematch.org/ to learn more about the bone marrow transplant process and register.

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