Bonnie Adams smiled as she lifted the back of the Georgetown University sweatshirt she was wearing to show two small puncture wounds in her pelvic area, now covered with two tiny scabs and healing nicely.
“That’s where they took it,” she said. “That was two weeks ago.”
And with that, Adams, Beaufort, became what they call “an angel donor,” someone who donates her bone marrow to help save the life of someone else — in this case, a 56-year-old woman with acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Adams said she hasn’t had any problems or complications from the donation process. In fact, the entire experience has been so uplifting and positive that she’s eager to organize a bone marrow registry drive like the one she attended back in May 2003 at St. Francis Borgia Grade School that connected her with the woman in need.
That drive was being held in honor of Jordan Scheer, a local boy in need of a bone marrow transplant. The goal was to register more people to the national list in the hopes of finding a match for Jordan and anyone else waiting too.
According to Be the Match, operated by the National Marrow Donor Program®, 70 percent of all patients who need a bone marrow transplant don’t have a matching donor in their family.
A patient’s likelihood of finding a matching donor on the Be the Match Registry is estimated to range from 66 to 93 percent, depending on race and ethnicity.
Adams, who works in health care as a paramedic/patient care tech for Missouri Baptist Medical Center in St. Louis, remembers attending the registry drive. Back then, the registration process took about a half-hour, she said, and involved drawing a sample of her blood.
(Today the process is as simple as swabbing the inside of someone’s cheek.)
There were 346 people added to the registry that day, a Letter to the Editor in The Missourian noted afterward.
Adams had read about it in The Missourian and wanted to get involved, “to try to help someone local,” she said.
Adams already donates blood regularly.
More than 10 years later, in late September 2013, Adams had forgotten all about the bone marrow registry until a series of letters from Be the Match arrived in the mail just days apart.
“They said I was a possible match for somebody, that they wanted to do more testing, to get ahold of them right away if I was still interested,” recalled Adams.
Then before she even could, she received a phone call with the same request.
At first the news that she was a possible match came as a shock, said Adams, and she admits to feeling “kind of nervous” about what donating would mean.
But she quickly decided it was something she really wanted to do knowing it could help save someone’s life.
“I just thought, I’m going to call and see and go ahead with it if I am,” Adams remarked.
Two Methods of Donation
There are two methods of donation: PBSC (peripheral blood stem cells) which is done through a blood draw and bone marrow, which is obtained through a surgical procedure. The patient’s doctor chooses which one is best for the patient.
PBSC donation involves receiving an injection of filgrastim for five days leading up to donation, said Adams.
“Filgrastim is a medication that increases the number of blood-forming cells in your bloodstream,” according to Be the Match. “On the day of donation, blood is removed through a needle on one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood is returned to the donor through the other arm.”
Bone marrow donation, which takes place in a hospital operating room, involves doctors using needles to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of the donor’s pelvic bone. Donors receive anesthesia and feel no pain during the donation.
Adams said she opted to give bone marrow, even though it required surgery, because that is what the doctor recommended. She had been told she could donate either way.
“I’ve had surgery in the past, so I wasn’t scared by it,” said Adams. “I usually come out with flying colors. Awake and talking.”
Before Adams was cleared to be a donor, there needed to be further testing to see if she was the best possible match for the patient. So within two or three weeks after being notified that she was a possible match, she went to a lab in Eureka where they drew 15 vials of blood for testing.
Six weeks or more passed before she received an email in December saying she was a good match, but that the patient was no longer going to have the transplant. Before Adams even had time to feel disappointed, she received a phone call the very next day from a donor rep in Kansas City.
“She said I was the best match and the patient was going to have the procedure, so they needed me,” Adams recalled. “I got really excited at that point.”
An information packet and stack of consent forms arrived in the mail, and Adams went through all of the necessary paperwork via a phone conference with her donor rep.
Next, she had a physical completed at an urgent care to make sure she was healthy enough to have surgery. The physical was completely free, and Be the Match even paid for her mileage.
Adams also had one unit of her own blood removed to have available the day of the procedure if she needed it. It was returned to her body at the end of the procedure.
She had her choice of three locations where she could make the donation — Kansas City, Denver or Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She originally chose Denver, but when it wasn’t available on the date they needed (Jan. 20-22), Georgetown was her second choice.
Adams could bring one person with her on the all-expenses paid trip, and she asked a friend, Sue Wilkinson, Beaufort, who had been her kindergarten teacher at Beaufort Elementary more than 25 years earlier.
Wilkinson is an active walker and favors a one-mile paved stretch in front of Adams’ house. They would often see each other on Wilkinson’s excursions, and then they reconnected through Facebook a couple of years ago.
Adams asked Wilkinson if she wanted to go with her on a “mini-vacation,” and once she learned the purpose of the trip, she couldn’t say no.
“I said, ‘I have to do this. She’s going to be saving somebody’s life hopefully,’ ” recalled Wilkinson.
When they arrived in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Jan. 20, the weather was beautiful — an unseasonable 60-some degrees. They took advantage and did some quick sightseeing.
“We probably walked eight miles,” said Wilkinson. “(Bonnie) was bound and determined to get out and see some things . . . so we set out on foot. It was a fun afternoon and evening.”
They walked to the National Cathedral and all around Georgetown University campus. They even saw the steps used in “The Exorcist” movie. The hotel where they stayed was directly across from the medical center, just a room’s length distance from door to door.
All along the way, they were pampered. Neither Adams nor Wilkinson paid for anything the entire trip.
“They take very good care of their donors,” Wilkinson remarked.
For the procedure, Adams was face down on her belly so the doctor could insert the needles in the back side of her pelvic bone. He removed 1 liter of bone marrow, which her body is expected to replace within four to six weeks.
The entire procedure lasted just 32 minutes, from 8:18 to 8:50 a.m., said Adams.
The good news was that Adams’ bone marrow was so concentrated and rich, the doctor didn’t have to remove as much as he normally would.
“They said a normal person’s bone marrow cells count is 18,000. They said about halfway through the procedure they send a sample down to the lab to see, and mine was 26,000,” said Adams.
That, she admits, made her feel really good.
“This whole thing has made her feel good, and it’s made me feel good to be a part of it,” Wilkinson added.
Adams said she woke up in recovery, she didn’t have any pain, maybe a little soreness and some nausea.
She did stay overnight in the hospital one night, but that was likely because a snowstorm and extreme cold temperatures had hit the area, said Wilkinson. It was 15 degrees, but the wind chill put it below zero.
Now two weeks after the procedure, Adams said she’s still feeling great. She hasn’t had any issues, even though Be the Match sent her home with an insurance card to cover any donation-related medical issues that might have come up.
Knowing about her highly concentrated bone marrow had made Adams feel excited to help more people in need of bone marrow. She’s hopeful that she will be a match for more patients and have the chance to repeat the process.
Through the process, Adams has found out what tissue type she is. That is how patients and donors are matched — not by blood type, but human leukocyte antigen (HLA).
“This is much more complex than matching blood types,” it reads on Be the Match’s website, www.bethematch.org. “HLA is a protein — or marker —found on most cells in your body. Your immune system uses HLA markers to know which cells belong in your body and which do not. There are many HLA markers that make a person’s tissue type unique; however, matching certain markers is what is critical to a successful transplant.”
Knowing her tissue type allowed Adams to search a website to see how many matches there were for her on the national bone marrow registry. There were only 11 who are a perfect match.
That’s part of what has encouraged her to plan a drive to sign up more people. The more people who are registered, the better the odds of anyone finding a perfect match.
Because the reality is, of those 11, how many may have developed their own medical problems since registering that now makes them ineligible to donate, asked Adams. How many people may have passed away? How many are now too old to donate?
“Eleven isn’t a whole lot,” she remarked.
Watch The Missourian for details on a bone marrow drive this spring in Beaufort. As the event takes shape, The Missourian will run news stories on it to let the community know.