DoD marrow program saves lives
June 19, 2008
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas --- It started with a lack of energy, mysterious bruises and a series of nosebleeds. While Staff Sgt. Abel Martinez figured he was just run down, he was concerned enough to go to the Brooke Army Medical Center Emergency Room.
The doctors checked him in for testing April 26 and Martinez hasn't checked out yet. He was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of blood cancer, and transferred to Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
"I've been here ever since," said Martinez, a father of two who has served in the Army for 11 years.
Martinez is one of an estimated 30,000 children and adults in the United States, more than 500 of them in the Department of Defense, diagnosed each year with leukemia, aplastic anemia or other potentially fatal blood diseases, according to a DoD Marrow Program fact sheet.
Once diagnosed, Martinez started chemotherapy and is awaiting a bone marrow transplant, which will "increase my chances of survival and chances of fighting this disease," he said.
For many people, a bone marrow transplant is their only hope.
For a bone marrow transplant, the patient's diseased bone marrow is destroyed and healthy marrow is infused into the patient's bloodstream.
Martinez has four brothers and one sister but only one of his brothers is a partial match. His situation is not uncommon; 75 percent of the patients in need of a marrow transplant can't find a match within their own family. As a result, a national database, called the National Marrow Donor Registry, is available to identify potential donors.
Additionally, the Department of Defense established its own marrow donor center, the C.W. Bill Young Marrow Donor Center in Rockville, Md., to meet the special needs of the military. While donors recruited through the C.W. Bill Young/DoD Marrow Donor Program are then listed with the National Marrow Donor Registry, a separate donor management system offers a secure system to facilitate the process, according to the fact sheet.
One of the main objectives of this program is to reduce the length of time required to complete transplants for patients seeking donors through the national registry.
As of Dec. 31, 2007, more than 500,000 DoD volunteers were registered in the DoD and National Marrow Donor Program files, and over 2,300 have provided marrow to help save a stranger's life, according to the fact sheet.
To donate and potentially help someone like Martinez, volunteers must simply fill out a DoD consent form and provide an oral swab sample. The sample is tested to determine the Human Leukocyte Antigen type. The coded information is placed on the National Registry in Minneapolis, where it remains until the donor's 61st birthday.
If a preliminary match is made, the donor will be contacted and asked to have blood drawn to test for compatibility. If the test results show an acceptable match, the donor will be asked to consider donating marrow for the patient. This stage involves an extensive educational session to explain the entire marrow donation process and a physical examination to ensure good health. Additionally, one to two units of blood will be drawn prior to the donation for transfusion back to the donor after the procedure.
The actual donation is performed at a National Marrow Donor Program-approved collection center, usually either Georgetown University Hospital in Washington D.C. or at the University of Maryland Greenbaum Medical Center in Baltimore. The surgery takes place under local or general anesthesia and takes about one and a half hours. The bone marrow is extracted from the pelvic bone with a needle and syringe technique.
The recovery time is usually quick; most donors are back to work in a few days and their normal physical routine within a few weeks.
All costs, to include travel expenses and medical fees, are paid by the DoD.
Active-duty military members and their Families, DoD civilian employees, Coast Guard members, and National Guard and Reserve personnel are eligible to register. Potential donors should be 18 to 60 years old and in good general health.
Martinez encourages people to register. "If they don't help me, they'll find a match for someone else."
For more information, call the C.W. Bill Young DoD Marrow Donor Program at 1-800-MARROW-3 (627-7693), or visit www.dodmarrow.org.