Master sergeant donating bone marrow so that a stranger can live
April 19, 2003
WASHINGTON — One stranger’s kindness might save a dying man’s life.
Somewhere in the world, a 32-year-old man suffers from acute leukemia, and will die without the last-ditch effort of a bone marrow transplant.
In steps Master Sgt. Kristofer Carlson, an Air Force chief of logistic maintenance for the southern region Signal Command of NATO, and stationed in Naples, Italy.
Carlson, 42, is a match, and has agreed to undergo a typically painful procedure of donating his marrow.
But Carlson says he’s no hero.
“I don’t consider this to be that noble,” Carlson said during a recent pre-surgery visit to Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for health tests to make sure he’s can undergo the scheduled May 8 surgery. “Someone is going to die if I don’t do something,” said Carlson.
Marrow recipients have an overall 40 percent survival rate in the first year following a transplant.
“It’s a no-brainer for me,” said Carlson, who learned in February that his marrow matched someone in need. “It’s a zero chance of surviving versus a 40 percent chance for that man. What would you do?”
In spring 1999, while stationed at Eskan Village in Saudi Arabia, a simple question prompted Carlson to become one of nearly 4.9 million potential donors registered with the National Marrow Donor Program. At a routine bone marrow drive sponsored by the Defense Department, someone asked.
“It was the first time I’d ever been asked if I wanted to help,” he said, matter-of-factly.
The National Marrow Donor Program, which in spite of its name has roughly 1 million international registrants, was started in 1986 with $1 million from the U.S. Navy.
Back then, the Navy wanted to start a bank of marrow donors to aid servicemembers who needed transplants if exposed to radiological or chemical agents, particularly mustard, said Navy Capt. Robert Hartzman, director of the C.W. Bill Young DOD Donor Program in Kensington, Md.
The program grew, and eventually transferred to a private company and now is headquartered in Minneapolis. But the Defense Department continues to contribute, from rallying the troops to join the donor list to allocating $20 million a year for researchers, technology, testing and maintaining the registry program, he said.
In 1990, the department began recruiting donors among its own, “and since then we’ve been doing it at every base and on every ship,” Hartzman said. “Almost every day, I’d say, there is a recruiting drive place.”
Of the 4.9 million registered donors, roughly 300,000 are servicemembers or their family members.
Donors must be between the ages of 18 and 61 — and yes, even servicemembers who might join the military before their 18th birthday must wait to register, Hartzman said.
Of the 300,000 military-affiliated registrants, there have been 1,300 marrow transplants over the years; 240 of them done last year at Georgetown, the center contracted by the department to harvest DOD-members’ marrow. Donors are flown in from around the world to Washington for the procedure.
Carlson said he’s not frightened or even apprehensive but the upcoming surgery, the effects of which could range from a mild discomfort to outright pain.
Doctors will drill a few pen-point sized holes into his hips to aspirate the marrow — eventually sucking out between a liter and a liter-and-a-half, said Dr. Tamarro Taylor, his attending physician.
During last week’s visit to Washington, Carlson “donated” his own blood, which will be put back into this body post-surgery to replenish his depleted stock of red blood cells so that he won’t suffer from anemia, Taylor said. A battery of tests showed he’s healthy.
Carlson knows next to nothing about the intended recipient — other than he’s 32 and suffers from acute leukemia. And one day, if the man survives the cancer, the transplant, and is agreeable, Carlson would like to meet him.
They might become friends.
Carlson has documented the expedition and posted a journal on his Web site at: www.krisandsusanna.com. More information about bone marrow transplants is available through the National Marrow Donor Program at: www.marrow.org. Information and a listing of the DOD-sponsored bone marrow drives can be found at www.dodmarrow.org.