A Soldier's perspective on conquering fear, procrastination to save a life

A Soldier's perspective on conquering fear, procrastination to save a life
Sgt. Jonathan W. Thomas, 16th MPAD
Military News
Monday, April 22, 2013 - 8:33pm

The art of procrastination, or making excuses, was largely hammered out of me through serving nearly five years in the Army, but not entirely. There are still Saturdays that begin with a conscious decision to hit the gym, which turn into napping on the couch instead, books that set on my shelf for over a year, and family members I’ve been meaning to call for months.

One of all the biggest things I regret procrastinating about in my life is registering to become a bone marrow donor. The idea first came to me when I heard the story of Sgt. Stephen Thompson, a Soldier with 6th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, who was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma in late 2011.

Thompson needed a bone marrow transplant, and the local community at Fort Bliss rallied to organize a drive to register potential donors in the National Marrow Donor Registry and C.W. Bill Young/Department of Defense Bone Marrow Donor Program in the hopes of finding a lifesaving match.

I found out about the drive a week after it had happened, but I called the Fort Bliss Blood Donor Center to try to schedule an appointment to get on the registry. The courteous staff informed me it was strictly a walk-in process; I could come in at any time and they had plenty of kits available. Somehow, nearly ten months of continuous postponements and excuses went by before I decided to make good on my personal promise.

When I informed friends and family members about getting on the registry, most were surprisingly opposed. The most common types of questions and comments I faced involved fear, likening marrow donation to something out of a horror film, than to a medical procedure. Stories of excruciating pain and needles longer than my arm, were tossed around casually.

To be perfectly honest, I had concerns about the process. I learned through research, the procedure is done under anesthesia, and many donors only experience mild to moderate soreness following donation. Sometimes bone marrow isn’t needed at all. In some cases, doctors prefer to use peripheral blood stem cells, which are collected through a process similar to donating blood: in other words, relatively non-traumatic.

Perhaps the most awkward and difficult question to answer was, “Why would you be willing to go through that for a total stranger?”
It took some soul searching to find an answer, but I realized the concept of saving a life often has the sense of immediacy and proximity. Many troops wouldn’t hesitate to come to the aid of a comrade in combat, particularly a close friend in very visible pain and distress. Registering to donate marrow to a stranger is more anonymous and impersonal, but the urgency is still very real. According to the DoD’s donor website, “An estimated 30,000 children and adults in the United States, more than 500 of them in the Department of Defense, are diagnosed each year with leukemia, aplastic anemia or other fatal blood diseases.”

For many of those patients, a bone marrow donation might make the difference a patient living or dying. It might have for Thompson. I was recently deeply saddened to discover he lost his fight with cancer in November. He was only 32 years old, and he left behind a wife and three young children. It struck me how deeply these disorders cut, and for all the thousands of patients waiting for a match, there are many thousands more waiting, family members feeling helpless to save their loved ones, and both holding onto hope a stranger might be a life-giver.

Maybe many of us imagine these diseases will happen to other people in the same way deployed troops envision combat injuries happen to fellow warfighters. In a perfect world, these disorders wouldn’t exist and Soldiers wouldn’t get injured during battle. To counter these sad realities, we have programs like the NMDR and combat lifesaver courses. While both save lives, both could save more with greater participation.

All it took was four cheek swabs and five minutes of paperwork to qualify me as a potential donor, which in turn, might allow me to help in saving a life. In my opinion, it was much easier than attending the Army’s equally valuable, week-long CLC.
According to the NBMP website, as of April 2012, there were nearly 10 million registered donors but there are still not enough matched donors for all patients.

While there is an ongoing need for donors of all racial and ethnic backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 44, there is a particular need for donors of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific-Islander, Native American and other multiple race origins. To increase the likelihood of a successful transplant, doctors use specific genetic markers to match donors to patients and patients are more likely to match someone from their own ancestry.

After nearly a year of putting off registering to become a donor, I am once again waiting, this time for a call I am a possible match. While I felt like I had all the time in the world to register to donate, thousands of patients were waiting to find a match, often without the luxury of time on their side. 

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