Soldier's stem cells used to offer hope
July 24, 2009
- Soldier donates stem cells to cancer patient
It's around noon on Monday and in a few moments a man is going to stab Staff Sgt. Victor Gardner in the chest with something long and sharp. And Gardner, a Soldier from 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), is OK with that.
In fact, the 33-year-old volunteered for the procedure at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, which involved doctors digging a thin hole through Gardner's chest in order to connect a catheter to a vein.
The procedure, which took around 45 minutes, was only part of a daylong effort for Gardner to donate stem cells to a cancer patient.
After the catheter was inserted, Gardner dressed and headed up seven flights of stairs to another room. Once there, he was hooked up to a machine to extract the stem cells from his blood.
For around three hours, Gardner watched television, ate a turkey sandwich and slept while a machine covered in tubes, dials and plastic bags processed about 350 milliliters of his blood and ultimately claimed about 160 milliliters of stem cells.
Gardner's donation came about after he was contacted by the Department of Defense C. W. Bill Young Marrow Donor Program to give stem cells.
It wasn't the first time the organization had told him he was needed. Shortly after joining the military about five years ago, Gardner signed a waiver following a military physical to be entered into a national database of donors.
The organization called him in 2007 about a leukemia patient who was a close match and needed his help. But Gardner had to back out as the time for his donation would fall too close to his March 2008 deployment to Iraq.
But when Gardner returned in November, the organization contacted him again to say the same patient was alive and still in need.
"They pulled on my heart chords," he said.
Weighing on Gardner's decision were thoughts of his four children, he said.
"If it were one of my children, I would say 'please help,' " he recalled.
Ultimately, deciding to help was a relatively easy decision, but wasn't one made without pause.
"I hate needles. Period," he said.
To Angel Clemens, a former colleague at Combat Camera, Gardner's decision to give was no surprise.
"He's just one of those individuals who, if he sees somebody in need, he'll take the shirt off his back to help or the blood out of his bones," said the former sergeant first class who retired earlier this month.
The procedure for donating stem cells is far different than simply giving blood.
For five days before Monday's procedure, the native of Washington, D.C., stayed in a hotel near the medical center. Each morning, he walked to the hospital to receive an injection of Neupogen in each arm. The drug increased his white blood cell production and the number of stem cells that could be harvested. It left him at times feeling lethargic, light-headed and with occasional throbbing in his sides and thighs, among other symptoms.
Once the stem cells were extracted, they would be used quickly, said Kristen Verts a transplant coordinator with the hospital.
"The longer the stem cells are outside the body, the more viability they lose," she said. "Typically, it's given fresh."
Indeed, Gardner learned Tuesday that the stem cells had already been delivered to the needy patient.
But how that person is or will do may remain a mystery to Gardner. Under the program's guidelines, Gardner knows little about the recipient other than she is 37 years old and 5 feet 9 inches tall. If the recipient wishes, she and Gardner could meet in a year, a prospect he looks forward to.
But even if the pair never connect, Gardner said the procedure was worth it.
"This person went through the process of waiting and waiting and waiting, now she finally has it," he said. "If it helps that person get another 24 hours to live, it's all worth it."
More information on Department of Defense C. W. Bill Young Marrow Donor Program can be found at the http://www.dodmarrow.org/.