A nine-year-old boy in senior Evan Sassack’s neighborhood was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma four years ago. In a drive to help find a stem cell donor, over 200 people, including Sassack, gave DNA cheek swab samples to Be the Match, an organization that connects volunteer blood and marrow donors with patients in need.
Although Sassack was not a match for the boy, he received a call from the organization that his DNA was similar enough to donate to another patient. His experience with Be the Match would prompt him to host a drive that matched two patients with Hillsdale College students: junior Andrew Hoffer and senior Cassidy Kaufman.
Since only 30 percent of patients have familial donors, Be the Match connects the remaining 70 percent with registered donors. Donations include peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) and bone marrow for patients suffering from one of 16 different diseases, including forms of leukemia and lymphoma.
“A lot of people don’t know there is a cure for blood cancer, but there is,” said Barbara Hile, manager of the stem cell program for Be the Match. “It’s with that anonymous volunteer donor where we cure cancer.”
After blood tests confirmed Sassack as the best match for the patient, he donated PBSC in January to help a girl outside the United States.
For the PBSC donation, which makes up 90 percent of Be the Match donations, donors are given a drug called filgrastim to increase blood-forming stem cells. The donor’s blood is removed through a needle in the arm and passes through a machine that takes only the stem cells. The red blood cells return through a needle in the other arm. On average, this apheresis session takes eight hours with about two days of recovery for the donor.
A courier travels with the donation to wherever the patient is for the transplant. Due to patient confidentiality, the patient and donor cannot contact with consent until one year after the donation.
The prime age for donors ranges from 18 to 25.
“College students have the world’s best bone marrow,” Hile said. “You have a lot of cells, and those cells are very hyper, so when we give those cells to a patient who has virtually no immune system, they’re healthy, and they go to work quickly. Young donors produce the best transplant success rate since as we age, cells do too.”
After learning of the difficulty to register to donate on college campuses, Sassack decided to hold a drive at Hillsdale’s student athlete physical day in April.
“To get into the college athlete community, it’s very tough to do because there’s not a lot of college athlete donors,” Sassack said. “I thought, ‘That’s such a shame. If you have these prime donors, why can’t I take it one step further and tap into that donor database that could obviously be a lot of benefit?’”
Statistically, only about one in 500 donors are contacted because they are the closest match to a patient. Sassack’s drive beat these odds, however. Of the 100 students that gave a DNA sample at the drive, Be the Match found two donors.
“That Cassidy and Andrew came up with a match so quickly again reiterates that those young donors are what we need,” Hile said. “They are the best chance for transplant.”
Hoffer registered, wanting to show support for the work of the organization, but did not believe he would be selected to donate.
“I was pretty shocked,” Hoffer said on being matched. “I felt very blessed and honored. I told myself this is a once in a lifetime opportunity almost nobody gets to have, and it’s really a blessing.”
Hoffer is scheduled to donate PBSC this week.
Kaufman’s mother, who has donated a gallon of blood in total to the American Red Cross, and his neighbor who had leukemia, inspired him to register.
“Honestly, it’s a miracle to be paired with this individual to help him,” Kaufman said. “If I can help in any way, sure why not? God totally ordained this, and the fact I can be used like that, it’s way cool.”
Kaufman plans to donate bone marrow in the middle of November. The procedure is more invasive as it includes general anesthesia and drilling into the pelvic bone to obtain the bone marrow for donation. Recovery takes about a week for this surgery.
While these students may have found matches, many patients are still without a donor, including the boy in Sassack’s neighborhood who put him on the registry in the first place.
“They need more people,” Kaufman said. “The bigger pool they get, the more options they get to help people. It’s such a small price, and you’re literally saving a person’s life.”
Be the Match pays for all expenses for donors, including travel costs and medical fees. The organization is one of the largest unrelated marrow transplant registries in the world and continues to develop services and interactive technologies to reach more patients.
“The more people sign up and send in their samples, the better chance somebody could find a donor and have their life saved,” Hoffer said.
Since his donation and the drive, Sassack has remained involved with Be the Match.
This summer, he spoke alongside two other donors at a hearing on a Michigan bill that would allow drivers to purchase license plates with the Michigan Blood Fund logo. Revenue from the bill would go to funding organizations including Be the Match. The state Senate passed the bill unanimously on Sept. 10, and the bill currently rests in the House.
Sassack hopes to host another donation drive at Hillsdale, but this time, open it to the entire student body. Until then, students can go to BetheMatch.org to visit the organization.
“God put the opportunity in my life,” Sassack said. “It’s been a blessing. It’s very humbling. Any help they can get, they appreciate it, especially from kids our age.”