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Giving right down to the bone

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Amber Kelly-Woodward
  • 375th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office
In 2001, a senior airman broadcaster stationed at Osan Air Base, Korea, was covering a story about the Congressman C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program drive when he was asked if he wanted to register. 

Not thinking much of it, the Airman registered with a fast blood sample, not knowing that one day he would save someone's life. 

In 2008, Tech. Sgt. Joseph Derr, 375th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Video and Production NCOIC, was contacted by the DoD Marrow Registry because he was identified as a marrow match. 

When Sergeant Derr gave his blood sample of about two tablespoons, the DoD marrow donor program determined his human leukocyte antigen type and registered it with the DoD Marrow Donor Program and the National Marrow donor program. 

The main mission of the DoD Marrow Donor Marrow Program, which is the largest volume of life-saving marrow for patients throughout the world, is to have marrow that goes toward military medical application for rescue of casualties with marrow damage resulting from radiation or certain chemical warfare agents containing mustard, according to the DoD Marrow Donor Program website. 

The marrow is also used to treat about 70 different potentially fatal diseases. A marrow transplant can be used to replace diseased, non-functioning bone marrow with healthy functioning bone marrow for conditions such as leukemia, aplastic anemia and sickle cell anemia; to replace bone marrow and restore its normal function after chemotherapy or radiation for conditions such as lymphoma, neuroblastoma and breast cancer; or to replace bone marrow with genetically healthy functioning bone marrow to prevent further damage from a genetic disease for conditions such as Hurler's syndrome and adrenoleukodystrophy disorder. 

"Being in the military, we're in the business of saving lives," said Sergeant Derr. "How much more could I accomplish than by giving my marrow?" 

Once Sergeant Derr was matched, he traveled to the DoD Marrow Donor Program clinic for additional testing in June of 2008. In most cases, a possible match has only a 10 percent chance of being a definite match. 

"I must have the most common type of marrow, because this was the fourth time I was contacted, and most people go decades before being contacted, if ever," said Sergeant Derr. "I thought the letter was a mistake because I was still waiting for results from another match test." 

While Sergeant Derr was eager to donate marrow, his wife was not as eager.
"My wife was a little reluctant, but she still supported me," said Sergeant Derr. "I would hope that if my wife or daughter was in the same predicament that someone would step up like me." 

After Sergeant Derr was identified as a match he was flown again to Washington D.C., in October and for four days he was given filgrastim, a synthetic hormone, to increase the number of blood stem cells in the bloodstream. 

"The worst night was the fourth night, but even if all I brought the family was hope, then it was worth the pain," said Sergeant Derr. "They said the more pain, the better the donation." 

Normally, on the fifth day, which is the day of the procedure, the last injection is given. Then blood is drawn through a needle into a machine that separates the blood stem cells. The remaining blood is returned through the other arm, similar to a dialysis. Sergeant Derr had minor complications, so the blood was drawn from his neck.
The normal procedure takes four to six hours, but after the central line was put in his neck, it took only two hours. 

The marrow looked like "weak tomato soup," described Sergeant Derr.
"The needles caused discomfort, but if you've ever given blood, then it's the same," said Sergeant Derr. "The pain I felt was a drop in the bucket compared to the pain the marrow recipient was experiencing." 

After two days of recovery, Sergeant Derr came home. He was given pain medications to comfort him. 

Marrow donors are only allowed limited information about their recipients. Sergeant Derr's recipient is a 33-year-old female who has acute myelogenous leukemia.
Since the procedure he has received two anonymous letters, one was a thank you letter and the other was a letter from the recipient's mother. 

According to the DoD Marrow Donor Program, the donor and recipient may have direct contact after one year or they may never have contact. 

For one year Sergeant Derr will not be able to donate marrow to anyone else except his recipient just in case she needs another donation. 

"My bone marrow is making her blood, so now her blood is A positive like mine," said Sergeant Derr. "So I will always be the best match now." 

Sergeant Derr said he would donate marrow again if he was asked to do so. 

"I got a couple shots and blood drawn, and that's something anybody can do." he said.
Shortly after his donation, Sergeant Derr attended the Senior NCO Academy where they held a bone marrow drive. 

"I became the subject matter expert," said Sergeant Derr. "Most people said 'no,'
"But after I explained the process they said, 'that's all?,' and almost everyone signed up after that,"Sergeant Derr said. "Eighty percent of people just had misconceptions." 

The initial testing can be done with a cheek swab. Then the actual process is primarily done the way Sergeant Derr's went, which is contrary to what most people envision: a big needle in the hip. 

To make donations possible, when registered with the DoD Marrow Donor Program, military members receive permissive TDY and travel expenses for the donor and a chaperone are covered. 

Furthermore, most registries charge to become a donor, but the DoD program does not.
Sergeant Derr encourages more people to register. 

"Without people in the database, people are dying, especially minorities," said Sergeant Derr. 

Sergeant Derr is currently in the process of setting up a registry at Scott. 

For more information about the C.W. Bill Young DoD Marrow Donor Program, visit