JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Air Force Capt. Meghan Samek, an intelligence officer with the 381st Intelligence Squadron, recently donated bone marrow to a 7-year-old leukemia patient. She would do it again, she said, and encourages others to donate. (U.S. Air Force photo\ Chris McCann)
Posted 5/5/2011 Updated 5/5/2011
by Chris McCann
JBER Public Affairs
5/5/2011 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Almost any blood donation center stays pretty busy during a blood drive; plenty of people are willing to give forty-five minutes and a pint of blood in exchange for a couple of cookies, some juice and a feeling of having helped a stranger.
But how many are willing to give up two weeks and have a liter of bone marrow removed for someone they've never met?
Air Force Capt. Meghan Samek, an intelligence officer and flight commander with the 381st Intelligence Squadron on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, decided to take the plunge and join the Bone Marrow Donor Registry in 2009.
In April, she flew to Washington, D.C., and gave a liter of bone marrow for a 7-year-old girl with leukemia. She's already back at work, and said she would do it again.
"I'd heard a lot about someone who had donated, when I first got to Alaska," Samek, a native of Pittsburgh, Penn., said. "The hospital had a bone marrow donor registry drive, so I signed up."
Registering only took a little paperwork and a mouth swab for DNA and blood-type matching, she said. After that, she didn't hear much from them.
Once a donor is registered, their information is on file, and their marrow may never be needed.
"They call if they find someone who's close to your type," Samek said. "Then they ask for a blood sample."
That sample is tested to determine more specifically if there's a close genetic match to the would-be recipient. Usually, the best match is within the recipient's ethnic group - so the registry encourages minorities to register. The National Marrow Donor Program operates the "Be The Match" Registry.
The program pays for travel, meals, and lodging expenses needed for the donor.
Samek had a blood sample drawn and then heard nothing for about two months.
"Then, two months ago, they called; the recipient was ready for the transplant," Samek said. "I got on a plane to Washington, D.C., for testing there.
They took more blood samples and did an electrocardiogram and a complete physical.
I talked with a nurse practitioner - there were numerous tests. They also took a pint of blood for later, and then I came home."
One of the most moving parts of the visit, she said, was talking with other donors in the waiting room and seeing children in the area for treatment. Many of them were in chemotherapy and had lost their hair.
"I was glad I was doing this, to help them," she said. "My recipient could be any one of those children."
Of course, she said, the registry is worldwide, so her recipient could have been anywhere.
All in all, she was only gone for two days. She also was given vitamins and iron supplements to build up her system and ensure she would be able to donate, she said.
The test results all were satisfactory, so Samek was scheduled for surgery on April 14 at Georgetown University Medical Center and she got back on a plane.
Her parents accompanied her to the hospital, and after a few last-minute checks - like a pregnancy test and a final assurance that her iron levels were high enough - things got underway.
"It was really fast," Samek said. "Within an hour I was putting on a hospital gown and answering some questions, and then they were putting in IVs and I was being wheeled in to meet the team."
Samek said she was offered the choice between an epidural (anesthetic in the spinal column) or a general anesthetic, and chose the latter.
"The anesthesiologist said he was putting something in my IV that would make me feel like I'd had six beers. I watched him inject it - and that's all I remember," she said. "Some six beers!"
She woke up as she was being wheeled into the recovery room, she said. The team had removed a liter of marrow from her hips using a needle, which leaves no incision wounds or scarring.
They had given her the pint of blood she'd banked during the testing phase, and about three liters of intravenous fluid, and she stayed at the hospital overnight.
The next night, she stayed in a hotel across the street. Then she went home with her parents for a few days of leave to recuperate.
"At first I had a pressure bandage around my lower back. Sitting in one place was okay, but moving around was bad for the first two days. After that, it wasn't bad," Samek said.
"It was like having a pulled muscle in my back from physical training. I'm not running around yet, but it's just stiff and a little sore."
The marrow should regenerate itself in about a month, they told her.
"I'd do it again," Samek said. "I'm still on the registry. Of course, I've been on since 2009 and this was the first time I was asked."
Samek said she has given blood for years, but it's always the type O blood that is in demand, and she is type A, so she wasn't sure it was used.
"With marrow, when you donate, you know it's needed," she said. "You know for sure someone is going to get it. And I got to know a little about the recipient."
The registry does not allow a donor and a recipient to contact each other directly for a year.
However, if after that year both parties want to communicate, the registry will put them in contact with each other.
"I'd really like to know what happens," Samek said. "I'd like to know if she gets some recovery, and I'd love to hear from the family."
Her command, including squadron commander Air Force Lt. Col. Pete Briguet II, has been extremely supportive, she said.
"They filled out all the paperwork, and for the procedure I was able to take permissive temporary-duty status," she said.
"It needed a quick turnaround, but they were fine with letting me do it," she said.
"It takes a very special person to sacrifice on such a personal level for a complete stranger," Briguet said.
"This was a very painful procedure, but she overcame her apprehension and quickly agreed to the potentially life-saving procedure.
"She's a great role model for us all, and we are extremely proud of her," he said.
"I believe God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others," Samek said.
"Would I encourage others to do it? Definitely," she said.
"I hope the hospital does another drive again; a person can sign up anytime, though, and I know several people in my unit are interested in doing so."
She has been on a light-duty profile, but is already doing physical training with her flight again, even if it's only walking.
"I'll just walk - they encouraged me to walk as soon as possible - for two weeks, and then start building back up," she said.
And she just might receive another call.