Gift of Life: You can be the cure

Courtesy / AEPi

Courtesy / AEPi

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Every four minutes, a child or adult in the United States is diagnosed with some form of blood cancer, ultimately affecting nearly 170,000 people each year. There are no specific traits that could cause blood cancer; it could occur in anyone, anytime. Cures for many patients are possible, but the shortage of registered bone marrow donors leaves many patients waiting years to receive a transplant, if ever. Gift of Life at Grand Valley State University recognizes the need for more donors and encouraged more than 100 people to step up at their registration event last week. 

Gift of Life Marrow Registry is a bone marrow and stem cell registry with national and global reach. The healthy tissues of a matched donor can help patients fight various forms of blood cancer, which include Leukemia, Lymphoma and Myeloma. Currently there are 260,000 donors registered and Gift of Life has paired roughly 15,000 matches since its founding in 1991. 

To give these numbers a little more perspective, 5 million blood cancer diagnoses that have accrued since 1991, yet there are less than 300,000 registered donors. The cause is evident —  more healthy donors will lead to significantly more matches and successful transplants. 

Only those between ages 18-45 can register, so college students are a huge portion of eligible donors. Gift of Life has ambassadors at 85 universities around the world, including GVSU. During the registration event, which occurred Feb. 25-27 in the commons at Kirkhof Center, 166 total Lakers took the first step in potentially saving someone’s life. 

President of Gift of Life GVSU Jocelyn Messer was pleased with the registration outcome but said that far more donors are still needed.

“We did get 166 people to register, but unfortunately few of those registered will actually result in a match,” Messer said. “There are eight different (Human Leukocyte Antigens) that need to match up, and these include factors like ethnicity and genetics. More donors are really necessary because people are more likely to match with a stranger than with a relative, so many people have to rely on strangers to help them.”

The national registry is not only lacking in size, but in diversity as well, according to Messer. 

“African American and Hispanic patients are less likely to find matches, so we are hoping to expand the diversity of the registry,” Messer said. 

“We ran this event with Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), which is a Jewish fraternity. The founder of Gift Of Life Jay Feinberg was a member of this fraternity and was not only a transplant recipient himself, but he also helped increase the possibilities of matches for Jewish individuals.”

The students involved with Gift of Life GVSU have a mission to spread awareness of blood cancers and the need for donors. Some students have only recently been informed about this cause, but for Messer, the push for outreach is personal. 

“A student in my class growing up needed a bone marrow transplant and that really shook my small community. Many young adults in the community registered to help him and he did get a transplant in college, but I believe he needs another transplant now and it can be even harder to find a second donor. More recently, my dance teacher’s husband just found out he has blood cancer, so it’s just another push to do more,” Messer said.

Philanthropy Chair for AEPi GVSU Nolan Wagner recognizes Jay Feinberg’s contributions to Jewish blood cancer patients and is doing his part to spread awareness too. 

“I was honored to be involved with this event. Not until talking to (Messer) did I truly understand the cause and need. The way Gift of Life was structured made it all the better, as well as the people there helping me along the way. I will continue to support this event because of the possibilities and rewards it holds,” Wagner said.

Gift of Life GVSU Student Ambassador Katherine Kalina started volunteering a year ago to help her friend run a drive and was immediately inspired to become more involved. 

“Without these drives, some people would never be able to find a compatible match for marrow donation, but Gift of Life provides hope and a second chance to people who would be out of options otherwise,” Kalina said. 

For most certified donors, the donation process is not much different than donating blood, besides that it takes longer. Unlike the select few blood types, there are millions of tissue types that have to be compatible to work. 80 percent of donors experience a non-invasive stem cell extraction through their blood. In fewer, but equally important cases, the other 20 percent of donors will undergo a procedure that takes marrow from the hip bone, generally for children who need pure bone marrow. A few hours of your time could save a life. 

Gift of Life GVSU’s next registration drive is at the Dance-A-Thon on March 31. Potential donors can sign up between 1 and 3 p.m. at the Fieldhouse. Initial registration is as simple as a cheek swab and providing contact information. Online registration can be completed at www.giftoflife.org/register.