Almanac

Sports - July 31, 2013

Menlo native helps save a life

by Sam Borsos

Menlo Park native and Yale University football player John Oppenheimer traveled to Washington, D.C., recently to speak to members of Congress about how he saved a life in January.

Even though he never met the 41-year-old man in Europe who was diagnosed with leukemia and will get a second chance at life thanks to him, Mr. Oppenheimer says that donating his stem cells to a bone-marrow registry was an easy decision.

There are two processes for bone-marrow transplants: a peripheral blood stem cell process, which extracts stem cells from blood drawn from the arms of the donor, and the natural bone-marrow process, which takes bone marrow from the flat part of the donor's hip.

Mr. Oppenheimer did the stem-cell process, which is used about 75 percent of the time, and takes anywhere from three to eight hours, according to Trina Brajkovich of the Be The Match donor program. "It was pretty painless and very comfortable," he says. "I was little tired and a little sore, but it was very easy for me."

He was inspired to register for the Be The Match donor organization by a fellow Yale student who died from leukemia in 2011 because she was unable to find a match for a bone-marrow transplant.

On July 18, Mr. Oppenheimer, along with doctors, Be The Match representatives and donor recipients, spoke to members of Congress about the success of the program and urged them to support continued federal funding for transplants.

"All the meetings seemed to go really well," he says. "One cool thing about (a transplant) is that it's not like cancer research. It's not just trying to save lives; it is saving lives."

Yale responds

In 2008, Mandi Schwartz, a junior at Yale and an ice hockey player, was diagnosed with leukemia. In response, the football team, women's ice hockey team and women's field hockey team came together and organized a school drive to register as many students as possible in an effort to find a bone-marrow match for Ms. Schwartz.

Although hundreds of students were registered, the community was unable to find a perfect match, and she died in 2011 at age 23. However, the drive — called the Mandi Schwartz Be The Match drive — has produced 17 matches since its start and added about 4,000 names to the donor registry.

Registering for Be The Match is as simple as filling out a consent form and a getting a quick cheek swab for DNA. Ms. Brajkovich of the Be The Match program says there is a 1 in 540 chance of actually being called to donate because of the rarity of a correct match.

"There are people who will be on the registry for their entire life and never be called," she says.

Mr. Oppenheimer joined the Be The Match bone-marrow donor registry during the spring of his freshman year at Yale in 2011. (The entire football team is registered, he says.) After only a year and a half in the registry system, he was called as a possible donor. Further blood tests showed that he was a perfect match for the 41-year-old man who was diagnosed with leukemia.

"I've never done anything like this," Mr. Oppenheimer says. "It's very rare to get the opportunity to impact someone's life and have an opportunity to save it."

He doesn't know yet who received his transplant because Be The Match upholds donor confidentiality guidelines. No recipient learns about their donor — and vice versa — until a year after the transplant.

"After one year post-transplant, either side can ask for the contact information for their donor or recipient," says Ms. Brajkovich of Be The Match. "If both of them want to, we exchange their information. Occasionally you come across people who don't want to know, but most of the time they get in contact."

Mr. Oppenheimer is unsure whether he'll meet his European recipient, but says the two might exchange letters or emails. Either way, he hopes to continue to help Be The Match, such as by his recent participation in the annual Legislative Day in Washington, D.C.

The Be The Match program, which started in 1987, has helped with more than 55,000 marrow transplants, the organization says. About 10.5 million people are registered through the Be The Match program in the U.S., says Ms. Brajkovich. About 930,000 of them are California residents. Although they have helped thousands of lives, Ms. Brajkovich says, it can be difficult to fund the program because it costs $100 to register someone on the list.

"We write a lot of grants, we try to get corporate sponsorship," she says. "We have drives, and everything from bake sales to people at work holding silent auctions or having lunches that you can pay money to attend. We have a Be The Match Walk and Run in San Jose every April. You name it, we've tried it."

Next year, as a senior at Yale, Mr. Oppenheimer will continue to lead the committee that holds the annual Mandi Schwartz bone-marrow registry drive in the spring. This year, the group got about 850 people to register, and he says he only hopes that the Yale community will keep registering.

"It's very important for as many as people as possible to join the registry, mainly because the odds of being a match is so slim," he says. "Especially because it's so easy — it's just a cheek swab. You never know if you could be that person to save the life of a cancer patient."

Go to bethematch.org for more information about the program.

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