Ferndale Man Shares Story of Donating Marrow in Hopes of More Lives Saved
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Feb. 12, 2019)
Ferndale, MI- Blake Scheer’s smiling face was missed around the Ferndale community for a few days, but it wasn’t a vacation that took the busy banker out of town. He was off in Washington DC, donating bone marrow to try and save the life of a 57 year old man that he’s never even met.
Back in 2017 Scheer had been watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show when actress Kristen Bell was on talking about the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Registry.
“She was so passionate about it,” Scheer said. “I thought about how it’s so easy to do. You just do a quick swab and send it in. How could I not?”
He ordered a kit, used a cotton swab to get a sample of saliva, mailed it in, and “just forgot about it.”
But then he got the call. A 57 year old man with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was a match!
Further testing confirmed potential compatibility, and teams of doctors went to work. One team’s focus was to take care of prepping and supporting Scheer through the donation process, and the other to prepare the mystery recipient. The care for each is isolated, so even the doctors and nurses could not leak information even if they wanted to. The secrecy helps protect anonymity and reduces that urge for donors and recipients to try and track down their counterpart in the process.
The only things Scheer knows is the man’s age and that he is battling blood cancer. “They keep a very strong wall up between the donor and the recipient,” Scheer said. “They protect people’s privacy, so I don’t know even know what state this man lives in, or if he lives out of the country. Gift of Life does work all over the world. So who knows?”
Not knowing led Scheer’s mind to wander. “You think about, who is this person? Do they have a family? Do they have any kids? Who’s going to be with them in the hospital caring about them?”
He said trying to come up with a story helped him be brave through the process. “I was petrified,” Scheer said. “I have been scared since they called me. I don’t like needles. I don’t like doctors. I don’t like hospitals. I’m not the kind of guy that takes medicine. I don’t even like Band-Aids.”
Still, he did. “I don’t know this guy, but I felt him rooting for me to get through it.”
Scheer got the call eight days before the procedure. It “felt like forever” as nervousness hung over each day. Yet during the two weeks he felt worry, he knew that somewhere in the world this man felt an even more hefty angst, plus the side effects of intense chemotherapy required before receiving marrow.
Scheer and his husband flew to Washington DC at the expense of the organization. A guide met them at the airport and took them to the Georgetown University Hospital campus where a hotel suite was also paid for. The guide helps with any requests. For example, if a donor has a craving for sushi, the guide puts an order in. The guide also helps keep the donor calm and encouraged.
Scheer was at the hospital when he got word that the recipient had become ill and the procedure had to be postponed.
“That was hard. I was there. I was ready to go. I was in the zone. All that excitement and nervousness, and then nothing. And I just felt sad. I wanted the person to be okay,” Scheer said.
Finally on Dec. 30 Scheer flew back to DC, and the procedure was done without a hitch. He was “in dreamland” when doctors used a needle to extract fluid from the back of his pelvic bone. In the days following the procedure his only complaint was being easily fatigued and his body feeling a little stiff. He was even able to get some sightseeing done the day after. His body will replenish the missing cells in only a matter of weeks.
As far as the recipient, Scheer won’t know anything for at least a few weeks after the donation. “They need time to see if it works,” he said. “Hopefully his body will respond to the healthy cells.”
And, if all goes well, in another year Scheer and the mystery man can meet and communicate if both parties consent. The wait time, he explained, was to protect both parties. If they can connect, communication is initially done through the Gift of Life organization, and is monitored so no inappropriate questions are asked. “They’re very careful to protect people’s privacy, and make sure everyone is comfortable,” Scheer said. “They don’t want there to be any pressure, like pressure to meet or requests for money or assistance.”
The experience left Scheer exhausted, curious, and optimistic. “It makes you slow down and appreciate life,” he said. “It feels good knowing you can do something so small that makes such a big difference. You can actually save another person’s life.”
His hope is that others will read about his experience and sign up for a testing kit themselves.
Many who donate have it even easier than Scheer did. There are two potential procedures, with only 20% of donors needing to have the marrow extracted from the bone directly. Most can have their blood cells extracted in a manner similar to donating platelets, where blood is pumped into a machine, filtered, and replaced.
According to Gift of Life’s website, 1 in 1,000 people who do the swab are called upon to give blood cells or marrow. Swabs stay in the system until a person turns 61. Being a match depends upon genetic makeup. Only about 30% of those who need marrow find a match among their family members, meaning 70% rely on hopes of finding a stranger who is a match. Costs are covered by the recipient’s insurance or by Gift of Life, and donating generally takes only a day or two depending on travel arrangements.
For more info on how to save a life by donating marrow, visit www.GiftofLife.org.