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A rare match

Sharon Sullivan
ssullivan@gjfreepress.com
Ian Stites of Grand Junction donated stem cells after learning he was a match for someone in need. Stites' DNA was tested at a bone marrow drive last summer held at the Downtown Farmers' Market.
Sharon Sullivan / ssullivan@gjfreepress.com | Free Press

Twenty-year-old Ian Stites wasn’t expecting to save a life so soon after visiting the Downtown Farmers’ Market in June. He, sister Amanda, and their mother, Genell Stites, had stopped at a Lymphoma Support Group booth at the market where volunteers were conducting a bone marrow drive.

“We said: ‘Hey, we should all sign up — it’s a good thing to do. Maybe one day we might save someone’s life,’” said Stites, a Colorado Mesa University student.

Volunteers swabbed the inside of each of their mouths for DNA — information that became part of the Be The Match Registry, which connects blood cancer patients with a donor match for a life-saving marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant.

Donor tissue types — which can be common, uncommon or rare — are matched with patients in need of healthy cells.

Some people remain on the registry for 20 years and never receive a call. So for Stites to be called two months later and told he was a match — that was a surprise, he said.

“I thought it would be longer, like years,” Stites said.

“The blood marrow center in Denver contacted me and said I was a match for someone and was I still interested?” said Stites, who responded “yes.”

More than 12,000 patients are diagnosed annually in the U.S. with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma, and their best or only hope for a cure is a transplant from an unrelated adult donor or umbilical cord blood unit.

A marrow or cord blood transplant replaces a patient’s unhealthy blood-forming cells with healthy ones. The cells can come from marrow, peripheral blood stem cells and umbilical cord blood.

Once someone joins the registry, and a match has been found, donors like Stites undergo a physical exam to ensure they are healthy enough to donate. “There are tons of opportunities to ask questions,” said Christian Snyder, director of the Colorado Marrow Donor Program at the Bonfils Blood Center in Denver. Potential donors “can opt out at any time,” although the later that happens, the more detrimental it is to the patient.

Stites chose not to opt out and thus traveled to Denver in October, where he underwent additional testing before submitting to the five- to six-hour donation process. Stites’ blood was removed and then replaced in his body after stem cells were separated out to give to the patient with whom he was a match. A patient’s unhealthy cells are replaced with a donor’s healthy ones.

While he’s aware of that patient’s health situation, Stites does not know the person’s identity. Strict confidentiality guidelines are followed regarding both patients and donors. Stites agreed to be interviewed for this story after being contacted by the Colorado Marrow Donor Program.

“It’s a good thing to do; I’m glad I did it,” Stites said.

There are two methods of donating: The traditional bone marrow procedure requires general anaesthesia where needles are inserted into the pelvic bone. More commonly, as in Stites’ case, are peripheral blood stem cell donations. That procedure is somewhat like a regular blood donation — only a much longer process.

A donor should be willing to go through either process, depending on the patient’s needs, Snyder said.

Verda, who goes by just the one name, moved to Grand Junction two-and-a-half years ago to be near her daughter who was a member of the Lymphoma Support Group that meets at St. Mary’s Advanced Medicine Pavilion, 750 Wellington Ave.

Her daughter, Lisa, who died in 2011 at age 48, was never eligible for a bone marrow transplant, yet she was instrumental in setting up the Grand Junction bone marrow drive, said St. Mary’s Hospital chaplain Mary Ellen Ireland.

“She was the driving force,” Ireland said. “Verda picked up the torch,” in organizing subsequent bone marrow drives.

The match between Stites and the unnamed patient is “pretty rare,” Ireland said.

Some people purposely seek out donor opportunities when they know someone who is in need of a transplant.

There is no cost to join for people between 18 and 44 years old; people 45 through 60 must pay a $100 tax-deductible contribution to complete their registration. A $100 financial contribution is suggested for all people that join the registry to cover the cost of their addition to the Be The Match Registry.

Seventy percent of patients in need of a transplant do not have a matching donor in their family, according to the Colorado Marrow Donor Program. Those people depend on finding a match through the Be The Match Registry.

For more information, visit BeThe Match.org.


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