In 2011, when first-year DMU student Matthew Sabongi was encouraged by a fellow student to join the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be The Match bone marrow registry, he readily agreed. A blood donor since he was in high school and a plasma donor as an undergraduate, he had the inside of his cheek swabbed during a campus donor drive. Then the demands of medical school took over his life.
“I didn’t think anything of it when I donated. I didn’t think I’d ever get called,” recalls Sabongi, D.O.’15.
Donations of bone marrow and peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) can save the lives of individuals with blood cancers such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. According to Be The Match, about one in 500 members of its registry go on to donate bone marrow or PBSC to a patient. That’s why Sabongi was somewhat surprised when, a few months after his cheek swab, he got a call: His bone marrow showed the potential to be a match for a patient in need; would he be willing to proceed with further testing?
“As a medical school student, I was comfortable about going through the process. I was intrigued,” he says. “To be honest, I wanted to see if it involved a gigantic needle they push into your bone.”
Sabongi learned that traditional surgical procedure, done under general or regional anesthesia, is now used less often than the non-surgical process he experienced. After he passed a physical exam, he received daily injections of the drug filgrastim for several days; that boosted in his bloodstream the number of blood-forming stem cells, similar to those in bone marrow. He then spent several hours at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics while his PBSC was removed from his blood via apheresis.
“The process was pain-free and really easy,” he says. “I’m young and healthy, but if that would change 15 to 20 years down the road, I would hope someone would do that for me. It didn’t cost me a penny, just a little of my time.”
During the process, Sabongi was told only that his recipient was the mother of two. Then, last June, he received a letter from Angela Kearns, who’d been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2009. She expressed her deep gratitude for his “amazing gift” that changed her life. He got to meet Kearns and her family in person at an Oct. 25 patient-donor reception organized by the University of Iowa marrow donor program, a donor recruitment and transplant center for Be The Match.
At the event, Kearns told a WQAD-ABC TV reporter that it was “just awesome” that Sabongi had made his donation. Her mother, who accompanied her, tearfully told him, “My name is Joy, but you are my joy — you saved my daughter’s life.”
Sabongi says his donation and opportunity to meet its recipient have made his medical education “more tangible.”
“Those personal experiences help you relate more to people, which builds trust. That’s been shown to build doctor-patient relationships, which improves outcomes,” he says. He strongly encourages others to consider joining the bone marrow registry to increase the odds for life-saving matches.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” he says. “The reason I went into medicine was to be able to help people and hopefully be able to save someone’s life. This made me realize you don’t have to go to medical school to save someone’s life.”