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Bone Marrow Donor Saves Patient's Life

By Morag MacLachlan
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center staff


Two and a half years ago, Ed Defreitas thought he was coming down with the flu. The 48-year-old felt feverish and tried to lower his temperature by drinking glasses of ice water. When his symptoms only worsened a few days later, Defreitas knew it was time to go to the hospital. He was expecting to be put on antibiotics, not a diagnosis of leukemia.

"It was like a wall came down," Defreitas said.

Doctors at Tobey Hospital in Wareham informed him that he had acute myelogenous leukemia. He came to BIDMC for chemotherapy and was told that he also needed a stem cell transplant. His family members were tested, but none of them proved to be a match. Defreitas' fate rested in the hands of the National Marrow Donor Program Registry.

"It was a very scary time for me," Defreitas said. "You wonder if you are going to make it."

In September 2007, Defreitas and his doctors received word that a donor had been located in New York. The man, Chad Emerich, had joined the registry hoping to be a match for a fraternity brother who needed a transplant. Although he was not a match for his friend, his stem cells were a fit for Defreitas.

With his cancer now in remission, Defreitas is grateful Emerich decided to join the National Marrow Donor Program Registry. The two even met to celebrate Defreitas 50th birthday.

"It's one of the biggest things you'll ever do for someone else," Defreitas said of becoming a donor. "I wouldn't be here if Chad didn't do it."

"The more variety in the donor bank, the greater the chance of a match," said Faith Bennett, Administrative Manager for BIDMC's Hematology/Bone Marrow Transplant Program. "There is always a need for people of different ethnicities to sign up as a donor."

Robin M. Joyce, MD, Director of Research Operations, Bone Marrow Transplant Center, said the process of becoming a donor and donating the cells has become easier and less invasive over the years. Donors' DNA can be obtained through cheek swabs, so there are no needles involved at this part of the process.

Although Defreitas' donor chose to meet him, donors can remain anonymous. Each day in the United States, 6,000 men, women and children of all ethnicities wake up hoping for a match.

This potentially curative therapy works only if a blood stem cell from the bone marrow is successfully transplanted into a person suffering from a malignancy of the blood forming organ, such as leukemia or Hodgkin's Disease. If a transplant takes completely, it forms the patient's blood and immune systems. A new blood system means the production of healthy blood and blood-forming cells. A new immune system can fight off the cancer cells plaguing the patient.

The only way to guarantee an immune system match is to secure a donor of the same genetic make up, often the same ethnicity, as the patient. Donating blood stem cells does not make the donor's count deficient and technology has improved the physical nature of the harvesting process in recent years.

"A donor can take an incurable illness and make it curable," Joyce said.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted December 2009


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Boston, MA 02215
617-667-1900


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