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Donating a chance at life: Kokomo teacher donates stem cells to 75-year-old woman through Be the Match

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LIFESAVING — After being on the Be the Match registry for eight months, Lacey Jones donated stem cells to a 75-year-old woman battling myeloid leukemia.

A Kokomo teacher has spent part of her summer possibly saving the life of a 75-year-old woman.

Late last month, Lacey Jones, a veterinary careers instructor at the Kokomo Area Career Center, traveled to the Hoxworth Blood Center at the University of Cincinnati to donate stem cells to a woman she was genetically matched with who was battling myeloid leukemia. Now, all Jones hopes is that her stem cells were enough.

“I really want nothing more than to hear that she is in remission. That was the emotional part of the process. Once it was all over, I just went to my hotel room, and I could not help but to just kind of cry and cry and cry and pray and hope because you want nothing more than for your cells to work for the patient,” Jones said.

But the opportunity to help someone was a chance that some don’t ever get. Jones registered as a donor through Be the Match, which operates the national bone marrow registry, late last year after the story of her friend’s daughter, who was diagnosed with infant leukemia, inspired her to want to help someone.

According to Be the Match, only one of 430 people who register as a donor is selected as a match, and some of those who are selected wait years before they’re matched. For Jones, she became a genetic match for someone in just eight months.

At the end of May, she received a call from Be the Match, letting her know that there was a woman who had been diagnosed with myeloid leukemia, and Jones was a secondary match for her. Jones was told that there was someone who was the primary match who matched just a little better, but in the chance that that donor fell through, Jones would be at the plate.

“I just kind of waited around, didn’t really think anything of it, and then they called me at the beginning of June. She explained that the original person who matched ended up not being who they really needed, and of course with HIPPA and all that they can’t really tell you any of that information as to why,” Jones said.

As far as the patient, all Jones was told was that it was a 75-year-old woman who was battling myeloid leukemia somewhere in the world. Jones was asked if she’d be available to donate during certain dates, but at that point, there were no details as to where she would be donating or exactly when. What Jones did know, though, was that she would do it.

The process then became a whirlwind of scheduling, logistics, and injections. She went to Indianapolis for lab work to ensure she was healthy enough to donate. Then, for a week leading up to her donation, she was required to take injections of a drug called filgrastim to increase the number of white blood cells in her bloodstream so they could be collected more easily.

hoxworth blood center

“They’re actual injections that are given to people who have cancer to increase the white blood cell count, but they’re given to donors because it increases your bone marrow production. Then what happens is your body naturally expels the extra bone marrow into the bloodstream,” she said.

Jones was a bit hesitant because she’d never given herself injections before, and she was warned of the side effects that could occur. The most common side effect of filgrastim, she said, was soreness due to the overproduction of bone marrow.

“They explained some of the side effects of the filgrastim, and that makes you feel a little intimidated. But because of my passion and my empathy for the patient and hearing about there not being donors and just knowing that I could potentially help save her life, it overruled any type of fear I had,” she said.

At the end of June, Jones traveled to Hoxworth Blood Center at the University of Cincinnati to begin the donation.

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There are two donation methods, either marrow or peripheral blood stem cells. The marrow donation is a surgical procedure done under anesthesia. Doctors use needles to retrieve liquid marrow from both sides of the back of a patient’s pelvic bone. The hospital stay is usually from early morning to late afternoon, according to Be the Match, while some donors are kept overnight for observation.

The peripheral stem cell donation, on the other hand, is a non-surgical procedure that takes place at a blood center or outpatient hospital. Blood is removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that collects only the blood-forming cells and returns the blood through a needle in the donor’s other arm.

As soon as Jones got to the blood center, nurses took a blood sample to see where her white blood cell count was. A normal count, she said, was between four and 10. Hers was at 42. Because the filgrastim injections were so effective for Jones, she was able to do the peripheral stem cell method.

So began a five-hour process of Jones sitting very still while a machine filtered out blood-forming cells from her left arm and put the blood back in her right arm. The nurses took her blood pressure every 15 minutes to ensure she wasn’t having any kind of reaction, and the staff knew down to the minute when her donation would be complete, she said, and had the transfer staff ready.

At the end of the donation, Jones said it was like a movie when the person came in to take her stem cells that would be delivered to the patient.

“They actually had somebody come up with the cooler because they flew my sample to the patient. It’s almost like a movie. You watch someone come through the big steel door with the cooler and watch them package your sample,” she said.

And while she didn’t know where the sample was going, she was told the recipient was “nowhere close” to where they were.

When the process was over, Jones was thankful. She said the nurses told her it was a textbook donation, and the only side effect Jones experienced from the injections was mild soreness.

Three months after the donation, the recipient will have the option to find out who her donor was and to contact Jones if she chooses.

Jones said she’d love to one day hear from the recipient.

“I want nothing more than to one day get that phone call that says, ‘OK, the person you donated to wants to get in contact with you.’ I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll probably cry again,” she said.

Jones will remain on the Be the Match registry, and in the event she ever receives a call that she’s a match again, she will be ready to go, she said.

To join the bone marrow donor registry, visit join.bethematch.org. The process requires a cheek swab, which can be done with a kit that’s mailed to potential donors. Afterward, the person will be added to the registry and have the chance to get matched.

Be the Match encourages those who are contacted to donate to go forward with the donation as they’re the patient’s best genetic match from the entire registry.