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Students sign up to donate bone marrow

In an attempt to save the lives of leukemia patients, prospective bone marrow donors swabbed their cheeks in the Bryan Center last Thursday. Although the process of registration is simple, it could save many lives.

For senior Kyle Gerbe, whose close friend died of leukemia because no donor could be found for her, the cause is an important one.

“You [can save] a life by doing it,” he said. “It’s an incredible opportunity. There’s no downside to registering.”

More than 200 students participated in a bone marrow donor registration drive in Von Canon Hall in the Bryan Center. The event was sponsored by DKMS Americas, a branch of an international nonprofit that registers bone marrow donors and matches them with patients.

About 70 percent of patients in need of a bone marrow transplant must depend on donors outside their family, but only four out of 10 of those patients will eventually receive the transplant they need, according to the DKMS website. College students are particularly important as registered donors because 40 percent of DKMS’ donors first registered between the ages of 18 and 22.

Last week’s registration drive was planned and organized by Gerbe, the philanthropy chair of Kappa Alpha Order, with the help of several dozen volunteers.

Gerbe first contacted DKMS in late September, and the organization helped him get the necessary supplies. Other than that, he said, most of the work consisted of contacting as many people as possible about the event.

“Publicity and getting the word out were all there was to it,” he said.

A total of 217 Duke students registered at Thursday’s event, Gerbe said, adding that he was highly satisfied with the drive’s results. The drive was even more successful than similar events held at other universities recently, he added, with 180 registered at Harvard University and nearly 500 at the University of Missouri, a larger school whose drive lasted five days.

To help plan, publicize and run the event, Gerbe enlisted the help of multiple university organizations, including several other Greek organizations. Gerbe said approximately 50 students volunteered at the drive itself, including 45 Kappa Alpha members.

In addition, the volunteers organized a fundraiser to help cover the costs of labor and long-term storage of donor information. They hosted the Metro 8 club on 9th Street on the night of the drive, donating the $1 cover charge to the bone marrow registry. Junior Austin Sutton, who led the planning of the fundraiser, said the event raised $450.

“It wasn’t as large a turnout as we could have had, but overall we’re just happy we could help out,” Sutton said.

DKMS covered the $65 cost of registering each student, allowing the Duke volunteers to focus on publicizing the event. Although students were able to make donations to DKMS when they registered, Gerbe said that money was not what was important.

“We just asked people to pay whatever they could,” Gerbe said. “DKMS really helped to cover the cost pretty much exclusively.”

Many people avoid registering as marrow donors because they have an inaccurate perception of the donation process, Gerbe said. In the past, donors were given no anesthesia and the procedure could only be performed by extracting marrow directly from the donor’s pelvis with a large needle.

“Because of that, nobody wanted to be a registered donor,” Gerbe said. “People were scared. That stigma has stayed attached to it, which is why the registry is so small.”

But a new procedure called peripheral blood stem cell collection allows donors to help leukemia patients through a much less painful procedure. In the process, blood is removed from one arm and passed through a machine that separates the stem cells from the blood while the remaining blood is returned through the other arm. Although the process takes about 6 to 8 hours, it is no more painful than giving blood.

Alex Miller, a junior who registered at a similar drive organized by the Delta Delta Delta sorority last year, was recently matched with a patient—something that does not happen to most registered donors. Miller received a package in the mail and a phone call telling him that he had been selected.

“It came out of nowhere. I was really surprised,” he said.

After undergoing a series of tests to ensure that he is healthy, Miller must now wait for the patient to be well enough for the transplant. When the time comes, DKMS will fly him to Washington, D.C., for the procedure.

“I’m really excited to do it but definitely still kind of anxious,” he said.

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