Story by Breanne Smith, AFCEC Public Affairs
Jacquelyn Polasek will never forget May 30, 2013. It’s the day she received the call.
Polasek, a contracted realty specialist with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, was checking her voicemail while going to lunch.
“I had a message from a donor specialist with the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center asking me to give the center a call back,” she said. “I was so nervous and excited, I knew why they were calling; I just crossed my fingers and hoped that it was good news.”
One month prior, while on a temporary duty assignment to March Air Force Base, Calif., Polasek received the first call from the center notifying her that she was a potential match for a person in need of a bone marrow transplant.
“They told me that if I was on board, they would like me to do some further blood tests to identify the extent of my genetic compatibility with the recipient, and then they would follow up with me once they got the results.”
Polasek connected the donor specialist who told her she was a “perfect” match.
“She told me it was a five-year-old boy who has cancer and needs healthy bone marrow in order to survive and she asked if I would be willing to donate.”
Polasek, who said she’s normally not an emotional person, immediately burst into tears.
“I’ve thought about that day and how I felt, and it just makes me think about how emotional the call (his) family received telling them they had a willing donor that was a 100-percent match, how emotional that must have been for them,” she said.
Polasek’s name wasn’t just pulled from thin air. Back in 2001, after a family friend of hers was diagnosed with cancer, her hometown of Falls City, Texas, pulled together to host a drive to find a potential bone marrow match. Although Polasek wasn’t a match for her friend, she had her name added to the National Morrow Donor Program Registry in hopes that one day she would be able to save another life.
“My decision to donate was made back in 2001 when I added my name to the registry. I didn’t even have to think about my answer when they called,” she said. “I think it’s kind of neat that my donor profile was registered in the system years before the boy, (who) I would end up donating to, was even born.”
For the next two months, Polasek prepared mentally and physically for the surgical procedure.
“I started eating healthier and taking better care of myself; I may not know his name or where he lives, but I knew that I was essentially giving him my immune system, and I wanted to give him the best of what I had to offer.”
Polasek also attended weekly blood tests.
“Both my employer and clients (at AFCEC) were very supportive,” Polasek said. “Before I even had the surgery, I was granted permission to work remotely from home while I recovered, that way I wouldn’t have to choose between taking personal time off or going to work before I was physically healed.”
The Department of Defense has been a long-time supporter of the National Morrow Donor Registry. The DOD established its own center, the C. W. Bill Young Marrow Donor Center, to recruit volunteer marrow donors from active-duty military, their immediate family members, civil-service employees, Coast Guard, National Guard and Reservists.
While donors through the DOD program join the National Marrow Donor Registry, a separate donor management system offers a secure system to facilitate the process.
“We have over 760,000 donors in our registry,” said Megan Lubitz, supervisor of donor services. “Military donors are wonderful because of the high percentage of young, healthy candidates.”
Like the national registry program, once matched with a recipient, the DOD’s center works hand-in-hand with donors.
“It is important that our donors are 100-percent dedicated to their decision,” said Lubitz. “Approximately seven to 10 days prior to surgery is what we call ‘the point of no return,’ and we make sure our donors are very aware of what’s at stake if they were to change their mind.”
During that period, chemotherapy is used to essentially wipe-out the diseased bone marrow, leaving the recipients depleted immune system extremely vulnerable.
Polasek’s journey came to its culmination in early August. With her aunt along for support, she flew to Fort Worth on Aug. 7, with surgery planned for the next day at Cook’s Children’s Hospital.
“I couldn’t sleep the night before,” Polasek said. “I was anxious to get it over with; the sooner he got my marrow, the sooner he could start getting better.”
As she prepped for surgery the following day, Polasek was struck by the young patients she saw.
“It really hit me being in a children’s hospital seeing all the sick children who, many, are on a waiting list, just waiting to find their perfect match … how could anyone say, ‘no?'”
“A bone marrow transplant, while serious and vitally important, is not an overly complex procedure,” Polasek said. “Bone marrow cells are removed from the donor’s pelvic bone and transplanted to the recipient through an IV, where the cells will graft and eventually replace the patient’s cells that were destroyed during the chemotherapy.”
This allows the patient to regrow their immune system, giving them the ability to fight off any additional infection and help them return to normal, she added.
Polasek’s surgery went off without a hitch and she was recovering back in her hotel room a few hours later.
“I may have still been a bit loopy from the anesthesia, because I didn’t feel too much discomfort until I boarded the plane back home to San Antonio the next day.”
But Polasek said it was a small price to pay.
“I worked from home for a bit, and then I was back at work within two weeks.”
Although the surgery is complete, Polasek doesn’t feel like her role is over.
“Six months after the transplant, I will get an update on his health. I don’t know his name or what he looks like, but when I picture him in my head I see a healthy, happy kid – because that’s what I want to happen,” she said. “I hope I get that call in six months that says he’s doing well and then, hopefully, in one year we will meet. Or, if he or anyone else needs more of my bone marrow, I’ll donate again.”
That level of willingness is what the DOD’s registry center hopes to find throughout their ranks.
“We are a significant contributor to the national registry at approximately 10 percent,” said Lubitz. “We facilitate approximately 500 marrow and blood stem cell collections in a year, and we want to see that number continue to rise. We also have a strong need for donors with diverse ethnic backgrounds; minorities are under-represented on the national registry.”
Polasek said she sees the DOD’s program as an opportunity for the military to lead the way.
“It’s important to me that any person eligible to be a donor gets involved, whether they are military, contractor or civilian,” she said. “Our military has such strong respect and positive influence that they can encourage others inside, as well as outside the military circle, to be part of a lifesaving program.”
To learn more about the DOD’s Bone Marrow Donor Program, or to find a walk-in site near you, visit:http://www.dodmarrow.org/index.htm.