When Northern Essex Community College professor Ken Thomas found out one of his students had been waiting five years for a bone marrow transplant, he pushed to have the date of the college's third annual bone marrow drive moved closer.

Once the request was made, the Student Senate was quick to act, changing the date from April to December. It teamed up with the Caitlyn Raymond International Registry, a screening resource for patients and physicians that provides access to nearly 5.5 million donors internationally.

At the December drive, all that was needed was a simple swab from inside each potential donor's mouth. Sixty-five people turned out, but whether any are matches to names on the waiting list is not yet known.

"She is a wonderful person and someone to whom I would donate my own marrow if the match was successful," Thomas said. "I am very pleased with the willingness of all involved. I know there are many more good people than bad. This only reinforces that knowledge."

But the identity of the student those 65 people came to help is a mystery, because she wants to be anonymous. While still in high school, a bone marrow drive was publicized with her face on posters, and she heard people whispering, "There's the girl who needs the bone marrow transplant." She felt her life was complicated enough without having to deal with that | as well-intentioned as it was.

According to Dina Brown, director of student engagement and the Student Senate, the first bone marrow drive at the school was in response to a conversation between former transplant recipient and staff member Jodi Paciulan and the 2006 Student Senate. The result was 175 people tested and 46 potential matches found.

"She had spoken to them about the bone marrow transplant that saved her life. She is now over 10 years cancer free," Brown said.

The second drive, on April 25, 2007, brought 109 people and 20 potential matches.

When people go to bone marrow drives, their mouths are swabbed for cells that are then tested for tissue type and compared against the names on a registry of people in need of a bone marrow transplant. If a match is found, the donor is contacted immediately to see if he or she wants to proceed to a final blood test to confirm compatibility of markers used by the immune system to recognize cells in the body. A close match reduces the risk of rejection -- the patient's immune cells attacking donor cells following the transplant.

Tests are paid for by the patient or his medical insurance. The transplant is scheduled with the donor's legal consent after in-depth counseling and a thorough physical examination.

A bone marrow transplant replaces the patient's unhealthy blood-forming cells with healthy cells that can come from bone marrow, peripheral blood stem cells or blood collected from an umbilical cord after a baby is born. Stem cells in the donor's bone marrow and blood allow new marrow to grow within the patient.

Stem cells can be infused intravenously. This is called peripheral blood stem cell transplantation. Within two to three weeks, the transplanted stem cells can begin to grow normal cells in the patient, but the match has to be nearly perfect. Some patients can find a match within their family.

In cases where bone marrow is extracted, the donor is given light, general or local anesthesia so they feel no discomfort during the procedure. Generally, 2 or 3 percent of the donor's marrow is collected from the hip area through special sterile needles. The donor may go home the same day or the following day, and in most cases, the donor's marrow will replace itself in four to six weeks.

If the transplant is successful, the new stem cells begin to produce normal, healthy blood cells within two to three weeks.

Though donors can withdraw at any time, once they have given their final consent and the patient begins pre-treatment conditioning, the consequences can be lethal to the patient.

To be a donor, you must be between 18 and 60; in general good health, with no history of serious disease; possess a positive attitude and pride in wanting to become a donor; and sign a standard consent form allowing the Registry to include your tissue type in its computerized files for future matching.

To set up a bone marrow drive in your community, contact the Caitlyn Raymond International Registry at UMass Memorial Medical Center, 55 Lake Ave. North, Worcester, at 508-334-8969 or visit www.crir.org.

Northern Essex Community College this week will set a date for its fourth bone marrow screening drive. For more information, call Dina Brown at 978-556-3732.

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