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Bone Marrow Donor Would 'Do It Again' to Save a Life


Five years ago, Mark Kyllingstad's gift of bone marrow saved the life of a 9-year-old boy he had never met.

"I'm here to tell people, 'Hey, donating bone marrow is not a scary proposition at all,"' Kyllingstad, 43, said as he joined Rod Carew and several California Angels in a drive for the National Marrow Donor Program.

The boy Kyllingstad saved, Jason Herr of Aberdeen, S.D., is cured of leukemia, living a normal life as if he'd never been sick.

"I'll do it again for somebody else if I come up with a match," said Kyllingstad, a firefighter from La Mirada, Calif. "It's really pretty easy. The bone marrow regenerates itself in about two weeks."

Donors offer blood samples that are analyzed for six genetic markers, specific to race, on the surface of white blood cells. The results are recorded in a computerized international registry that is now nearly 3 million. In the United States, about 1.9 million donors are registered, more than double the number registered three years ago.

When the markers, human leukocyte antigens, match between donor and patient, blood samples are tested for compatibility. A transplant can proceed if the two blood samples do not reject one another when combined.

About 30% of patients have matching siblings or other family members, which gives them the best chance of a cure for various types of leukemia. But for many others, a marrow transplant from an unrelated donor is the only chance for survival.

The chances of any two unrelated individuals matching vary widely, depending on how frequently their antigens are found in the population. Currently, about 65% of patients searching the national registry have at least one identical matched donor. Interracial and minority patients like Michelle Carew have a much lower chance of finding matches because minorities are underrepresented in the registry. Whites have a 70% chance of finding a match, blacks only 30%, says Ione Maus, a program spokeswoman.

At last week's donor drive for Carew at a Panamanian grocery in Anaheim, where 90% of the 122 people who offered blood were minority donors, Kyllingstad sought to reassure them the process is not too painful or risky.

"I went in the hospital on a Thursday afternoon, they harvested my bone marrow Friday morning, I went home Saturday morning, and I went back to work Monday morning," Kyllingstad said. "I won't say that I didn't hurt. It felt like I'd played a football game and gotten hit in the small of my back.

"I have two tiny quarter-inch scars on my hip bones in the back where they harvested the bone marrow, and that's it. You're under general anesthesia and they make two little incisions. They drill down through the outside shell of the bones, then take a large needle and a big syringe and aspirate the bone marrow out of your hip bones, out of a non-weightbearing area."

The marrow is run through a strainer into a plastic intravenous bag, packed in a cooler, and hand-carried to the recipient for transfusion directly into the bloodstream. Healthy marrow cells travel to bone cavities, where they begin to grow and replace old marrow.

Patients prepare for the transplant by undergoing radiation and-or chemotherapy to kill cancerous cells and send the disease into remission. Patients must be isolated in a protected environment until the new marrow produces enough white blood cells to fight off disease.

When the marrow transplant is successful, it can completely cure a leukemia patient and create a lifetime bond with a donor as it did between Jason Herr, now 14, and Mark Kyllingstad.

"I met Jason in 1991 and we've talked by phone," Kyllingstad said. "There's a special relationship that is hard to describe. It's an amazing experience, yet so easy."

For Jason, too, meeting the man who saved his life was special.

"He gave me his fireman's hat," Jason said. "I have it sitting by my bed where I can see it every day. It reminds me of him."

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