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Medical students are happy to 'Be The Match'

Published on Thursday, April 16, 2015

Each entered medical school to save lives. Each got the opportunity to try before they began seeing patients.

Ian Mallett and John Howard, both second-year medical students at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, have donated bone marrow or stem cells to individuals whose lives were threatened by leukemia. A third M2 student is on standby in case the primary donor is unable to donate.

"I think a lot of people go to medical school because they want to take care of people and save lives," Mallett said. "It's a responsibility people have. This is an opportunity to save a life and you don't have to do anything special."

"That's the reason we're here," Howard said.

Mattie Coburn, donor center coordinator and recruiter for the Mississippi Marrow Donor Program, said the two are like most Mississippians who register. "Most donors who join the Registry are doing it to save a stranger."

In the 15 years she's worked with the donor program, she said she's never seen three students from the same class identified as possible donors in the same year or seen two who made donations in the same year.  

As the number of students who join the Registry grow, she said it may happen more often.

Be the Match

Mallett and Howard signed up for the National Marrow Donor Program's Be The Match Registry, part of an international program to match donors with those who need the life-saving transplants. Mallett signed up at a drive at the University of Mississippi. Howard did at a drive at UMMC. 

The Mississippi Marrow Donor Program, a part of the National Marrow Donor Program, coordinated their gift and helped arrange for Mallett's bone marrow and Howard's stem cells to be harvested and transported to the transplant center where patients awaited the gift. 

For five days before his donation Howard received shots to enhance his stem cell count. Then came four to five hours of apheresis. The process uses a machine, the same one used to gather platelets at a blood center, to take blood from one arm, remove the stem cells and return the remaining blood to the other arm.

"I loaded an IPad with a TV series I wanted to see," he said. "All said, it wasn't bad."

Fatigue and some achy bones lasted a couple of days before and after the donation.

Mallett's bone marrow donation involved surgically removing the marrow from his hip, an overnight hospital stay and a longer recovery. The recipient's medical team decides if they need bone marrow or stem cells based on the patient's illness, other medical conditions and other factors.

Mallett had plenty of time to catch up on his reading after his bone marrow donation procedure.
Mallett had plenty of time to catch up on his reading after his bone marrow donation procedure.

"I was pretty sore for a couple of days," Mallett said. "It wasn't anything too terrible. I had to study anyway so I was just laying around on the couch." 

Would they do it again? "Oh, yeah, definitely, without a doubt," Mallett said. 

"I would do it again," Howard said. He almost did. A year ago, he was the back-up donor, a person on standby in case the primary donor for any reason couldn't complete the donation. "They had all my HLA typing in the system. I was told I would be more likely to be called because they already had my information," he said. 

The desire to help runs deep. Both arrived at UMMC with family knowledge of medicine. D'Iberville resident Mallett's parents are physicians on the Gulf Coast.  Madison County resident Howard's father is a physician and his mother a retired nurse.

Howard said his donation was easier because it was for a smaller woman. Mallett's was a bit larger because it was for a man.

"The patient was my dad's age," Mallet said. "It could easily have been my dad. I'd want that (a donor) for him."

For a year, the little they now know of each recipient is all they'll know. After that, both the recipient and donor have to agree before any additional information can be exchanged. Mallett and Howard are open to that, but each said they'll respect the wishes of the recipient.

"I'm just happy to know I helped," Howard said.

Coburn said she receives periodic reports on the recipients. For now, both are doing well.

Mallett and Howard encourage others to sign up for the Be the Match Registry. "The process of signing up cost me all of five minutes of my time," Howard said. "I knew I could potentially help somebody."

"You are sacrificing a little discomfort for a short period and you could help a 30-year-old with terminal cancer live a normal lifespan," he said. Both emphasize that their bodies will replenish the marrow and stem cells they donated. 

Classmates, they said, were supportive. Two shadowed the team removing Mallett's bone marrow. 

How many prospective donors does Mississippi need? Coburn laughs. "That number doesn't end," she said. "The more donors we have, the more lives we may save."

Mallett made his donation in memory of a classmate, Pricilla Li, who died in December.

"She always put other people first," Mallett said. "She could light up a room when she walked in."  The M2s have established a scholarship in her name, with plans to award it to an M2 who embodies her spirt of selflessness and care.

To donate to the scholarship fund in memory of Pricilla Andrea Li, go to www.umc.edu/pricillalischolarshipfund/

Join the Be the Match Registry

To join the Mississippi Marrow Donor Program or to set up a drive, call Mattie Coburn at University Cancer Care's Division of Hematology at (855) 866-2362.