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Air Guardsman donates bone marrow, schedules drive to help others do same

Senior Master Sgt. Armando Gonzalez donates bone marrow to save a life Nov. 13, 2009. Inspired by the positive experience, Gonzalez is organizing a donor registration drive at the Air National Guard base at Tucson International Airport. He’s inviting all military members in Tucson to participate Saturday, July 10.

Senior Master Sgt. Armando Gonzalez donates bone marrow to save a life Nov. 13, 2009. Inspired by the positive experience, Gonzalez is organizing a donor registration drive at the Air National Guard base at Tucson International Airport. He’s inviting all military members in Tucson to participate Saturday, July 10.

TUCSON, Ariz. -- An Arizona Air Guardsman here helped save a life by donating vital bone marrow, and he wants others to jump on the bandwagon.

Scheduled for Saturday, July 10, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Arizona Air National Guard base at Tucson International Airport, Senior Master Sgt. Armando Gonzalez will spearhead a drive to list other potential donors into the national Be The Match Registry.

Airmen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base are invited to participate. The Air Guard base entrance is located on East Valencia Road west of Campbell Avenue Donor coordinators will be working in building 15. Security forces at the gate will direct traffic to the registration drive.

As the national marrow donor program, registering with the Be The Match Registry is the first step to becoming a bone marrow donor.

It all began 15 years ago for Gonzalez. He gave a cheek swab at a marrow drive held in hopes of finding a donor for a local 9-year-old girl. He received a postcard every three or four years, he said, to verify his current contact information, but didn't hear anything else until September, 2009.

"I got a call on a Monday from a nurse by the name of Maggie Wong, who notified me that I was a possible match for a cancer patient, and she asked if I would be willing to undergo further testing," said Sergeant Gonzalez, an inspection element supervisor with the 162nd Fighter Wing.

By Thursday of that same week, Gonzalez was scheduled for lab testing in which seven vials of blood were drawn. He was told that he had a 1 in 12 chance of matching the patient.

"A month later, Maggie called back and said I was a match for a 37-year-old female with acute lymphocytic leukemia, also known as ALL. I met with a counselor and an oncologist who explained the process of Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) collection, through which stem cells would be removed from my blood for the recipient," said Sergeant Gonzalez.

Counselors assist donors with the emotional aspect of their decision to contribute. Although a donor can back out of their decision at any time, counselors are required to inform them that once a recipient is prepped to receive the donation at the onset of the donor's PBSC collection process, their chance of survival is less than 15 percent if the donor backs out at that point. With a successful transplant, however, the recipient's survival rate is between 30 and 60 percent, said Sergeant Gonzalez.

"I had to undergo an extensive physical examination first at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. They took x-rays, an EKG [electrocardiogram], and a urinalysis," said Sergeant Gonzalez. "I felt really out of place there. It was heart-wrenching and surreal. Here I was--this healthy guy--surrounded by cancer patients of all ages," he said.

Deemed healthy enough to donate, Gonzalez was scheduled to begin a series of injections of an experimental drug to elevate his white blood count. The first injections were given on a Monday, Nov. 9, 2009.

"They said it would be like my body was fighting something, but it wouldn't know what it was fighting so I should expect to have achy, flu-like symptoms. My white blood cell count went from 6 to 48 by that Friday," he said.

With an ominous donation date of Friday the 13th, an elevated white blood cell count, and a nervous wife at his side, Gonzalez began the 7-hour out-patient donation process. To remove his healthy cells via the PBSC collection process, a collection line was placed in his left arm. The blood went through a machine to remove the stem cells for storage before returning the blood to his body.

"They cycled my body's blood five times. There was a little bit of discomfort, but it wasn't a painful process," Gonzalez said. "My donation took a little longer than average, but they ended up getting almost three times the stem cells they needed from me - enough for three transplants!"

The Mayo Clinic reports that PBSC collection is a rather safe process with few significant problems for the donor. The most serious risk associated with donating bone marrow is the use of anesthesia during the procedure. Sergeant Gonzalez' procedure did not require anesthesia.

The area where the bone marrow was taken out may feel stiff or sore for a few days, and the donor may feel tired. Within a few weeks, the donor's body replaces the donated marrow; however, the time required for a donor to recover varies. Some people are back to their usual routine within two or three days, while others may take up to three or four weeks to fully recover their strength, the clinic reports.

"The experience was very positive for me," Gonzalez said. "The folks at the Mayo Clinic were outstanding. There was constant support and information provided."

Although direct contact between a donor and recipient is not allowed until a year after a transplant, Sergeant Gonzalez has received cards from the recipient through his case handler, Maggie Wong. He also received word in December that the recipient was released ahead of schedule from the hospital in time to spend the holidays with her family.

Sergeant Gonzalez's positive experience has inspired him to add more potential donors to the Be The Match Registry by means of a local drive. In conjunction with the national marrow donor program, the CW Bill Young/Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program applies the technology toward the military medical application for rescue of casualties with marrow damage resulting from radiation or certain chemical warfare agents containing mustard.

The program was named for Congressman C.W. Bill Young, who initiated and supported the development of the national marrow donor program and the DoD program for unrelated donor marrow transplantation. The Department of Defense established the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Center in Washington, DC to support DoD volunteer marrow donors, and coordinates all the medical and logistic support for DoD personnel who volunteer for the possibility of donating marrow.

The process is simple for potential donors. At the drive, donors will be screened and must sign a consent form. Buccal swabs will be taken from the inside of the mouth, and donors are added to the registry. The process typically takes five minutes.

"Military folks tend to be healthy so this is the perfect place to hold a donor drive," said Gonzalez. "What I've learned through all this is that you really have to be grateful for what you have."

Go to www.marrow.org for more information on the Be The Match Registry, or visit www.dodmarrow.org for additional information on the C.W. Bill Young/Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program.