Donating a Life - KULR-8 Television, Billings, MT

Donating a Life

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Whether it's a family member, your neighbor, or even a co-worker, most everyone is affected by cancer. But with medical advances, there is a way you can give the greatest gift of all, a life.

Every year, more than 12,000 people in the US are diagnosed with a life threatening disease where a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor is the best or only hope for a cure. Countless diseases require transplants from a donor, whether it's an organ, tissue, or bone marrow that's required. What is needed is your help to step up and register to become that donor that just may save a life.

"Here's an opportunity to help somebody that takes very very little effort on my part to do. And in this situation, it may be I'm the only person in the world that has a close enough DNA match to be able to help," says Grant Gershmel, who signed up for the Be the Match registry during his regular blood donation as a possible bone marrow donor. "It was a simple cheek swab, and sign up your contact information, completely free, and never really anything more about it after that time."

It was as easy as that, and four years later, Gershmel found out he was a match.

"I'm completely involved in a complete stranger's life now. And, so there's definitely an emotional value to this for me for, how did this person do? Maybe it's a child and I could be helping a child similar to the age of mine," says Gershmel.

In most cases, the process has changed for a donor. It used to be a painful procedure to remove the bone marrow.

"When they think of bone marrow donation, they get scared because they think they're going to be donating bone marrow from their bone but now it's usually done through peripheral blood cells," says Dani Wright, Billings Clinic Patient Navigator.

The procedure is called an allogenic transplant. For some, it's easier on the donor, but just as effective for the patient.

"We take the patients blood out of their body and pass it through a machine that separates their stem cells," says Dr. Brock Whittenberger, Billings Clinic Medical Oncologist.

In 2012, more than 14,000 searches of the Be the Match registry were conducted.

"Most patients, once they find out that they do need to have a allogenic transplant, their biggest fear is that they're not going to find a donor," says Wright.

About 70 percent of patients don't have a matching family member and have to depend on an anonymous donor like Gershmel.

"I think that I would love to be able to hear the story of the recipient. I'd love to be able to hear that it was successful and that that person is able to enjoy a fully healthy life," says Gershmel.

When Kelly Sharp was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome in May of 2012, she found out she needed a transplant. The first step was to reach out to her brother, who she didn't speak to, to see if he was a match.

"We just didn't have things in common, and now we're one person," says Sharp.

Sharp went through harsh chemotherapy, and was hospitalized because her condition got worse.

"My son, you know, was worried that I was going to die, that he wasn't going to see me anymore," says Sharp.

Sharp was lucky, she found out her brother was a match in mid-September. Two months later, she and her brother traveled to Seattle for the transplant.

"He did it to save my life not to save his own life. So, when I look at my brother I just, I get tears in my eyes every single time because he truly saved my life. I would not be here without him," says Sharp. "I have male DNA now and I've never been so excited in my life."

It's been ten months since Kelly's transplant, and she is still healing.

And as for Gershmel's donation, it was successful as far as he knows.

"As a husband and father, if the role was reversed, I would definitely hope for the kindness of some stranger," says Gershmel.

"Just knowing that you saved someone's life is, I can't even imagine what a great gift that would be… You're not just helping one person, you're helping everyone that they're connected with too," says Sharp.

Doctors say from the time you find out you're a match, it takes about two months to prepare and actually complete the transplant. If you want to help save a life, you can register to be a donor. Just click on Connections.