CENTENNIAL, Colo. - Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "The only gift is a portion of thyself." Colorado Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Atosha McGregor, training non-commissioned officer for Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, Joint Force Headquarters, knows what it means to gift something of herself.
For her, that something was the gift of life running through her veins and in her bones.
Approximately 10,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with blood cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma, and sickle cell anemia. Approximately 70 percent of these people need to find a matching marrow donor outside of their own family for this life-saving procedure.
McGregor's donation journey began six years ago when a senior NCO in her section, who suffered from a form of Leukemia, hosted a Salute to Life bone marrow donation event. She said that being around that NCO each day became her real motivation as she began to understand what those with blood cancers suffer. A large part of that suffering is knowing that someone has the ability to save them, but is unaware of their lifesaving potential. This was driven home to her when another Guardsman died of his disease before a donor could be found.
At the Salute to Life event, McGregor and other Soldiers took a simple and painless swab test to determine if they might be a match for someone and put their information into the registry. McGregor said that at the time, she knew little about the entire process and what her chances of a match actually were.
Salute to Life is the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Recruitment and Research Program, established by Public Law in 1990. The program works exclusively with the U.S. military, their families, and DOD civilian employees to facilitate marrow and stem cell donations. All Salute to Life recruits are listed within the National Marrow Donor Registry through a separate Department of Defense donor management system.
Six years later, McGregor received a call from Salute to Life telling her that a potential match was found. For privacy reasons, they told McGregor that she might never receive the identity of the recipient. She only received some basic demographics such as age, sex, and the type of disease the person faced. She said that she immediately started to learn more about the specific disease and made a quick trip to Buckley Air Force Base, Aurora, Colorado, for a blood draw to ensure her match was close enough for a donation.
About a month later, she received the call. She was a match. She gave an unequivocal yes to proceed with the procedure.
"My fiancé was very supportive of my decision," said McGregor. "Support from spouses, family and friends is key to the process."
Marrow donations are done in one of two ways. Due to recent advances in medical procedures, three quarters of donations are done through Peripheral Blood Stem Cell process. A PBSC process is a non-surgical procedure that collects stem cells via the bloodstream. True bone marrow donation is required in about a quarter of all cases. This surgery, under general anesthesia, collects marrow cells from the donor's pelvic bone using a syringe.
McGregor qualified for the less invasive PBSC process.
Three weeks before the procedure she and a companion of her choice flew to La Jolla, California, where she underwent further testing at Scripps Hospital. Unlike previous testing, this more exhaustive testing and medical history review was performed to ensure she was healthy enough to undergo the procedure, and the process was further explained.
Still committed and medically cleared, her donation was scheduled for July 2017, and a coordinator was assigned to guide her through the process.
Three weeks later she again traveled to Scripps Hospital. The seven- day process began with two shots per day over the course of four days. These shots are designed to help move stem cells from the bone marrow and into the blood stream.
"After the four-day series of shots, I felt a little flu-like and ached a bit prior to the procedure," McGregor said. "I think this was likely due to the excess of white blood cells in my system."
On the fifth day she began the five-hour PBSC process, also known as leukapheresis. This process, similar to dialysis, involved removing some of her blood through an intravenous line, running it through a machine which removed white blood cells that contained her stem cells and then returned her red blood cells.
Just prior to the procedure, McGregor was given medication to help her sleep. She said she slept through nearly the entire process, waking up surprisingly refreshed and feeling better than she had all week.
Returning home a couple days after the procedure, McGregor returned to a regimen of healthy eating and exercise to minimize or prevent any potential after effects. This plan worked well for her, as she said most donors require a week of recovery, but she felt completely normal after only three days.
Now back to work, McGregor said she is a big advocate for the marrow donation program. She said donating is as easy as registering on the (salutetolife.org) website and swabbing your mouth with the kit that's mailed to you.
Her message for other service members is, "It was not hard, uncomfortable at times, but it wasn't as awful as I would expect. Considering that marrow donation could potentially save someone's life, it was one of the easiest things I have ever done. I am surprised that more people don't do it and encourage others to take the initiative. There are no out-of-pocket expenses and you could save someone's life."
Due to the anonymity of the process, McGregor may never know the effects of her life-saving gift. She indicated that she gave consent for the recipient to know who she was but will have to wait another nine months to see if the recipient wants to reach out to her. She said she hopes that they do; not for her own benefit, but to know her gift made a difference in that person's life.
Regardless, she remembers something one of the nurses told her during the process. She told her that by being a match there was a great potential that genetically she may be, albeit very remotely, related to that person.
"It is a kind of genetic re-connection. We were always connected by similar DNA, now we are much more directly connected as a portion of me is now a part of them," McGregor said.