Feel it in your bones: Sergeants lead the way to donating marrow

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Stacy Fowler
  • 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
"We start life, we live life, we defend life and sometimes we have to take life, but it's not every day when you get the chance to give life," said Tech. Sgt. Justin King, a 386th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron liaison officer, right before he went into lockdown for redeployment home. "Who knew that a form I filled out more than five years ago would suddenly give me the chance to give somebody a last chance at life?"

King, a Pittstown, N.Y., native deployed from the 4th Medical Support Squadron in Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., received word during his deployment that he was a potential bone marrow match for a one-year-old girl with Hurler's disease who was in the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program.

"I had no idea what Hurler's disease was -- I had to Google it -- but I knew that if I could give this little girl a chance by donating my bone marrow, there was no way that I'd pass it up," King said. "But I was only three months into my deployment, and that was a challenge I had to overcome. I was able to receive permission from my squadron commander to leave early, and after I get home, I'll head to Washington, D.C., for the next batch of tests."

But before King stepped onto the plane Feb. 12, he wanted to help members of the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing get the same chance to give life to others. He already had experience coordinating bone marrow drives at his home base, and even smaller drives at Army bases in the local area, so to get a drive started here, he just needed a point of contact who was here for another few months.

Enter Tech. Sgt. Gregory Frank, a 386th Air Expeditionary Wing manpower analyst. He and King worked together every day, so he knew about King's drive to be that little girl's donor. Frank also knows what it's like to be at the whim of something so implacable.

"My wife was diagnosed with cancer, but she was lucky and, after surgery and everything, is now 10 years cancer-free," said Frank, a native of Nelsonville, Ohio, deployed from the 3rd Manpower Requirements Squadron at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. "It's very sobering when you go through an experience like that. We could have been in the same situation as many of those looking for a bone marrow donor."

Frank admits he cringed and had visions of large needles punching into his bone for the marrow, and thought that since he wasn't eligible to donate blood he couldn't donate marrow, but King quickly set him straight.

"I was totally ignorant about donating, and I let two huge, false beliefs stop me from helping others," Frank said. "Justin set me straight, and we started putting our heads together to get a bone marrow donor drive started here. There aren't any huge needles and not a lot of things medically will keep you out of the donor pool."

There are a few things that will keep you from becoming a bone marrow donor, such as being HIV positive, having immune system diseases or some cancers. You can become a bone marrow donor even if you deploy, go to countries around the world, get tattoos or even have a cold or flu when you go in to donate. What excludes many people from donating blood does not affect bone marrow donation.

People shouldn't let the phrase "bone marrow donation" spook them, King said. There is only a one-in-200 chance of being a match; the majority of bone marrow donations happen within a family. The registry comes into play when doctors aren't able to find a perfect match.

"(Applying to become) a bone marrow donor is easy, painless and relatively quick," Frank said. "The only thing that takes time is filling out the form. After that, there are just four swabs you stick in your mouth; there are even directions to go with it to show exactly where you do it. Most times it takes a while to hear anything back; you could be like me and be in the system for a few years before somebody needs you."

And even if a potential donor does get the call, that doesn't mean his marrow is going to be taken; he still has the chance to change his mind and say no, King said. If the donor is one in 10 potential matches and says yes, the second portion of testing begins with blood tests. If the donor is one of the best matches, he and a guest are taken to either Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, where full physicals and other health exams take place before the doctors even schedule the donation appointment.

And by the way, all travel, lodging and food are paid for by the donation center.

"They really take care of you every step of the way," King said. "I have a coordinator I am working with, and they are walking me through every step to make sure I know exactly what's going on at all times."

If King is the best match for the little girl, he will then receive an appointment date for the actual procedure.

"I'm going to start the second phase at D.C. when I get back, and that could be the end of the road for me," he said. "But I really hope that I'm the best match because I want to donate."

"Most people just don't think about these huge, life-changing issues until it happens to them or their family," Frank said. "It's not because we're not good people, you just can't think about it until you have no choice but to face it. And think of how you'd feel -- and how Justin feels now -- knowing that you could potentially save a life."