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Donating bone marrow: How to save a life

27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

link Courtesy graphic: U.S. Air Force

The process is painful; it is long and by the end of it there is only a tiny bit of fluid in the bag. But that tiny bit is a miracle that could save someone’s life.

Bone marrow donors are rare, both in America and throughout the world. According to the national marrow donor registry, only about two percent of the world’s population is registered to donate and of those only one in every 500 actually goes through with the entire process. More than 3,000 people succumb to their illness every year while hoping for their perfect bone marrow match to be found. Given that bone marrow has to be matched on a specific genetic level, it can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Master Sgt. Jennifer Nuy, 27th Special Operations Security Forces Squadron first sergeant, has been on the registry for 10 years and in the last year and a half was chosen as a perfect match. She said that the donation experience moved her deeply.

“I remember it was Halloween and I was driving home when I got the call,” said Nuy. “I pulled over to the side of the road and cried.”

Nuy began her journey as a donor years ago by being added to the national marrow donor registry. She, along with her husband, had their cheeks swabbed at a bone marrow screening drive at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Her swabs were then used to test her human leukocyte antigen type, like a blood type only much more specific, and find potential matches throughout the world.

Ten years later, a 51-year-old man somewhere in Europe discovered that Nuy matched him 100 percent. She was then asked to undergo rigorous health screenings and processes in order to determine her ability to donate. Once it was confirmed that she was capable of donation, Nuy was taken to Washington D.C., where she began the process.

The C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program, established by public law 101-302 in 1990, is used by military personnel donating worldwide. The program was named for Congressman C.W. Bill Young, who made the national marrow donor program for volunteer marrow donors. The DoD program is part of the national program and coordinates marrow and hematopoietic stem cell donations of volunteer military personnel and civilian DoD employees, while also catering to the complexities of military life.

Any person donating marrow will be sent on a permissive temporary duty assignment and provided hotel accommodations adjacent to the medical facility where the procedure will take place. A coordinator is assigned to every donor to help them through the process.

Bone marrow is donated in one of two ways to be determined by the recipient’s doctor. Either a small portion of the bone marrow is taken out of the donor’s hip using a needle, or the marrow is collected via a peripheral blood stem cell donation. Five days before donating, the donor is given injections of a drug called filgrastim. This drug forces the body to release marrow, or stem cells, from the bones into the blood. On the fifth day, these extra cells are gathered using a blood filtering machine called an apheresis. Nuy was subject to the second option.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” she said.

Now Nuy will be getting another chance to help save a life. A bone marrow screening drive is coming next month to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, June 18 through 20.

“To do something for only five to six days out of your life that could potentially save someone else’s, it’s completely humbling,” said Nuy, about her own donating.