When a close friend was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia, Ohio University senior Erica Cohen was devastated.
"He was a 21-year-old kid a lot like me," says Cohen. "He was athletic, he was always involved. Then all of a sudden, he has a very aggressive form of leukemia, and the only hope for survival is a bone marrow transplant."
Bone marrow transplant. Though unfamiliar at first, those words would quickly become part of Cohen’s vocabulary, impacting friends and thousands of fellow students in the process. In the spring of 2009, only six weeks after her friend Tony’s diagnosis, Cohen organized the most successful college bone marrow drive to date, which added 2,300 people to the national bone marrow registry in one day.
"My whole goal was to find a match for Tony and other patients," says Cohen. "Finding a match is like finding a needle in a haystack.
"But if you add more needles, you have a better chance."
Cohen — who graduated in 2009 and is now a law student at Drexel University — tapped into a variety of organizations within her network at Ohio University for help, including Student Senate, Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
"Erica really deserves the credit for bringing such a project to campus," says Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, executive director of Hillel. "She connected her social circles, her academic circles, her Jewish circles, to ensure that the bone marrow drive reached very deeply across campus."
On Feb. 25, 2009, the first Got Swabbed? bone marrow drive was held at Ohio University; some 100 volunteers helped run the event.
Students stood outside of Baker University Center, promoting the event to passersby. Volunteers at the Baker Ballroom were equipped to register, swab and verify information for those signing up. More volunteers answered questions about the process and what would happen if a student’s cells were found to match a needy patient’s.
Every step was explained carefully to students. "We want to make sure we get committed donors because we don’t want people to back out at the last minute, which is really problematic," Cohen says. According to some estimates, a patient has a 4 in 10 chance of finding a match for a transplant.
For a potential donor, the process of swabbing is fairly simple: Donors are prescreened to meet a variety of weight, age and health requirements. After providing this information, each donor is registered with DKMS Americas or a similar organization that hosts bone marrow drives. (DKMS partnered with the university in 2009 and 2010 and funded two drives.)
Finally, the individual is swabbed with a long cotton swab (like a Q-tip), which is rubbed inside of each cheek for 20 seconds.
The information and swab sample are sent to DKMS, where registrants are added to the national Be The Match Registry for possible matching with a patient. An individual is registered until his or her 61st birthday, after which he or she is no longer eligible to donate.
Cohen’s hard work that day was evident: By the end of its first drive, Ohio University had not only registered 1,000 people above its target goal, it had also set a new record.
"(This drive) really set the bar for other college drives,” says Kelly Taylor, DKMS donor recruitment coordinator. "We love to use the OU story on other college campuses to inspire students"
After graduation, Cohen took a position at DKMS, one of the largest bone marrow registration organizations in the United States, as a donor recruitment coordinator and traveled the country sharing her successful model.
In her absence, Hillel took over the reins for a second drive.
"One of the reasons Hillel is so involved is because we are hoping to get minority students involved in the swabbing efforts and into the bone marrow registry,” Leshaw says.
Because the tissue types donated and needed are inherited, patients are much more likely to find matches within their own racial and ethnic backgrounds. However, the numbers for minorities are low: Only 7 percent of registered donors are African American, for example.
In order to reach out to a variety of people, the 2010 Got Swabbed? campaign took a different approach by expanding its swabbing efforts from one day to a whole quarter.
Samantha Schiff, a junior interior architecture major, and Matthew Newman, a sophomore political science major, coordinated an effort by Hillel and others to reach students within their own social circles.
They swabbed at Moms Weekend, Student Senate, club meetings and community events; they swabbed everywhere students might be. "It’s more about getting out there, getting the word out about how important this is and trying to reach people,” Schiff says.
Despite the mini-swabbing events, the one-day event on May 25 was still the most important for the campaign.
Although anyone can contact DKMS directly and have a swabbing kit sent to his or her home, Schiff stresses the need for drives. "You walk into a room filled with hundreds of people swabbing, and you get in that mood to help,” she explains. "You want to get out there, you want to talk to everyone, you want to see what’s going on, to understand leukemia. It’s important to get that feeling"
In addition to leukemia, bone marrow transplants are also used to combat other diseases including sickle cell anemia, lymphoma, some types of anemia and other types of cancer.
There is no doubt the drives have inspired the university; another 1,000 students registered this spring. There are already plans for the 2011 bone marrow campaign, including a drive in first-year residence halls during winter quarter. And three Ohio University students have donated bone marrow since the 2009 drive, including Jacob Wright-Piekarski, BS ’10.
Wright-Piekarski was walking through Baker Center during the first Got Swabbed? drive and had a few minutes between classes, so he signed up.
"Once I walked out the door, it wasn’t even on my mind," Wright-Piekarski says. Several months later, he received a call telling him that he was a match for a 7-year-old with leukemia.
In February, Wright-Piekarski underwent surgery — which is used in about 20 percent of bone marrow donation cases — as bone marrow was removed from the back of his hip.
Typically, donors undergo what is known as peripheral blood stem cell donation. In this process, the donor is given several synthetic protein injections that increase the number of young white blood cells in the bloodstream. Then, in a procedure similar to blood donation, blood is removed from one arm, passed through a machine that extracts the white blood cells, and replaced into the other arm.
In either case, the donor’s cell count returns to normal in four to six weeks, and Wright-Piekarski says the lingering back pain after the surgical procedure wasn’t an inconvenience — just a pain similar to that of a person who has slipped and fallen on ice. "By the end of the day, I was walking," says Wright-Piekarski. "Within five days, I was feeling very normal. Obviously, I could still feel something, but the pain was not that bad, and I would do it again.
"It was well worth it."
Senior Seth Fuller, who donated his bone marrow in September, says he was "near tears" when he found out he was a match for a 5-year-old boy. "You don’t get many opportunities to actually, truly help somebody out," the sports management major says. "You may talk to a friend when they’re having a bad day, but to potentially save somebody’s life? That’s incredible."
Leshaw remains hopeful for the future of the Got Swabbed? campaign and what it could mean to Ohio University and beyond.
"I hope this campus is always swabbing in some capacity," she says. "It would be great if it could be an effort that happened not just once but rather was an ongoing effort throughout a school year, so that there’s always awareness being built. And as students are identified as matches, we could celebrate that here on our campus.
"It could become a source of pride for our campus community that together we’ve done this and we’ve saved lives."
Find a bone marrow drive:
Register with a kit:
Both sites offer information on getting involved and how to donate to the cause as well.