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The Case for bone marrow transplant / Seven years after registering, SDSU student gives life-saving donation

Case undergoes procedure for Be the Match
Ethan Case gives a thumbs up while blood is extracted, circulated through a machine that separates the white blood cells, and the remaining blood injected back into the body.

For Ethan Case, a South Dakota State University pharmacy student, March 22 was a great day to save a life.

Be the Match, the world’s largest bone marrow transplant organization, promotes the message “Today is a great day to save a life.” Case’s “today” came March 22 when in a Seattle Be the Match facility he donated 500 milliliters of peripheral blood stem cells to an unknown leukemia patient.

Whether Case’s healthy white blood cells actually made a life-saving difference, he won’t know for at least a year.

One year after the procedure, the recipient is given the donor’s contact information. “It would definitely be neat to meet him or at least send him a letter,” Case, of Pierre, said. However, he isn’t too focused on meeting the recipient. “I know that I did what I could to help the patient out.”

Registered during first days on campus

Case’s Be the Match story begins in 2014 when he was walking through the SDSU University Student Union early in his freshman year.

“There a was big booth for Be the Match. I signed up and took a cheek swap. They send it in and your human leukocyte antigen information (a blood protein) is entered into their data system,” said Case, who will graduate May 7 with his six-year doctor of pharmacy degree. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2018.

Apart from an occasional email, Case didn’t hear from Be the Match again until December 2021, when he got a phone call.

“You’re a preliminary match for a patient in need of a bone marrow transplant. Are you still interested in being a donor?”

The passage of more than seven years had done nothing to weaken Case’s resolve to help. Next step was a blood draw to better define the match. Afterward, Be the Match told him to expect a call in 30 to 60 days. “I went on with my life,” which largely involved five-week rotations at medical facilities around the state as he finished his final year of pharmacy school.

The call: Selected as the donor

“On the 60th day (Feb. 17), they called me and said I’m the best match,” Case said.

What followed was more blood work appointments, an extensive physical and detailing his medical history. Because Case was in good health, not on medication, hadn’t been out of the country recently and was the desired age range (18-35), he was an excellent donor candidate.

Most recipients don’t need actual bone marrow but peripheral blood stem cells.

The same blood-forming cells (sometimes called blood stem cells) that can be donated from the bone marrow are also found in the circulating (peripheral) blood, the Be the Match website explains. Before donating, a donor takes injections of the drug filgrastim to move more blood-forming cells out of the marrow and into the bloodstream.

Then the donor's blood is removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood is returned to the donor through the other arm. This process is similar to donating plasma.

Normally, a person has 4,500 to 10,500 white blood cells per microliter. By the time of the procedure, Case’s count had reached 50,000, he said.

Be the Match funds donor costs

He received injections daily from March 18 through March 22. The last two were in Seattle at the hands of Be the Match. After the March 21 injection and some discussion about the following day’s procedure, Case and his dad explored Seattle and enjoyed chowder at the historic downtown Pike’s Place Market.

Be the Match funds all donor costs—blood work, transportation, lodging and food as well as the cost for a companion to accompany the donor.

Donating the peripheral blood cells was a four-hour procedure, but far from strenuous. Case had an IV in each arm, a TV to watch and his dad and medical personnel to chat with. He said he preemptively took Claritin to ward off potential inflammation and experienced slight back pain from the elevated stem cell production.

Otherwise, he had no physical symptoms from being a donor and was flying back to South Dakota the following day.

Transplant can equal cure

Case said, “The nice thing about a bone marrow transplant is it is a cure, not necessarily just prolonging things. It’s a cure if you can wipe out all their cancerous cells and reintroduce new healthy blood cells.” He noted that by the time patients are needing a transplant, other treatments have been tried and they’re down to their last hope.

Case added there is a possibility he could be the best match for someone else or that his March recipient may later need another transplant.

Editor’s notes: In addition to registry drives, potential donors can sign up online at My.BeTheMatch.org/JacksCare.

On April 21, the SDSU football team registered 305 new donors at the University Student Union, and the Medical Laboratory Science student organization registered 21 at an off-campus event.