I wouldn't be here today without a bone marrow donor

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. James P. Westdorp
  • Air Force Expeditionary Center
A while ago I started to get sharp pains in my abdomen. Like a normal hard-headed male, I thought to myself, "No big deal, the pain will go away."

The pain continued to get worse, and after 10 days I finally broke down and swallowed my pride. I went to the base clinic, and the doctor ordered an X-ray. The X-ray didn't reveal anything out of the norm, so the doctor referred me off-base for a MRI. It was a Friday and my appointment was for sometime next week.

Over the weekend, the pain became so unbearable that I went to the emergency room. The ER personnel did a complete blood count along with other tests. When my results came back, I overheard a nurse say, "Oh my God!"

I immediately knew something was wrong.

I asked her why she said that and she said it was best that my doctor talk to me. Now I thought, "I'm in real trouble." The doctor came in and said my white cells were in the 90 thousands (normal range is 4,500-10,000 per microliter) and I probably have some kind of leukemia or lymphoma. He said they would admit me and then left. Just like that!

That was a rough night. I didn't know what was going on and I thought I would be dead soon. The next day, my oncologist came in early in the morning. I was still awake from the previous night. He explained what he knew about my health and said he wanted to conduct more tests. I had no idea how much my life was going to change.

One of the tests included a procedure called a bone marrow aspiration, which involves a needle inserted into your pelvic bone to extract bone marrow. After the results came back, the oncologist informed me that I was in the blast phase of chronic myelogenous leukemia - the last and most dangerous phase of this type of cancer. A bone marrow transplant was the only option I had to survive.

My oncologist referred me to a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania. In order to save my life, the doctors there needed to find a quality match for me on the bone marrow registry. If they did not find a quality match, I was told my death date would be sometime in September 2006.

Finally, after four months of waiting, I received good news that they found a match for me. I was happy for about a minute. There still were a lot of things to do before I was able to receive a transplant. I had to receive an "aggressive" amount of chemo, which the doctors told me was like "detonating an atomic bomb" inside of me, as well as full body irradiation. The day I received my transplant, the nurses brought the marrow in a bag. It didn't look any different than the transfusions or platelets that I had already been receiving for the month before.

A year and a half later, I started slowly coming back to life. I returned to work and actually got promoted. I have completed my associate's degree in transportation, and I am enrolled in my sixth class toward a bachelor's degree. I also try to help others that are currently dealing with the same thing I went through.

In the end, it was a lot of praying, social support, a fighting spirit and the selflessness of my bone marrow donor that made the difference in whether or not I survived. Although many people and factors were involved in my recovery, without a bone marrow donor I would not be here today to tell you my story. I implore you to register to be a bone marrow donor. You have a chance to save someone's life, just like someone saved mine.