BILLINGS, Mont. — Kael Giebink headed off to Denver this month to try and save a life.

Giebink, 21, a premed student in his fourth year at Rocky Mountain College, flew to Denver to donate peripheral blood stem cells for a bone marrow transplant. He doesn’t know the identity of the recipient.

“After a year you can find out who it is,” he said, sitting at his family home in Billings.

That’s if both the donor and the recipient sign a consent form. No matter whether he ever knows the other person’s name, Giebink is glad to help.

That’s what inspired him to volunteer as a donor in the first place. He heard about a fellow Rocky student, Marissa Van Atta, diagnosed in September with acute myeloid leukemia and in need of a bone marrow transplant.

The two had been familiar with each other since they had been students at Senior High. As soon as Giebink heard about Van Atta’s plight, “I came home and ordered my kit from bethematch.org.”

The national marrow donor program has nearly 13.5 million volunteers in its registry, people like Giebink who are potential stem cell donors. According to its website, the organization has facilitated more than 80,000 marrow and cord blood transplants since 1987.

All that Giebink had to do was swab the inside of his cheek a few times and mail the swabs to Be the Match.

Protein markers, known as human leukocyte antigens (HLA) are then compared to protein markers of patients seeking donors to see if they’re a match.

“I was on the registry for three months, then I got a call on Jan. 25 that I was a match,” he said.

It doesn’t always happen that quickly, said Matthew Shirley, a work-up specialist with Be the Match. Shirley has been working long-distance with Giebink since he was chosen as a donor match.

“I worked with one donor who was on the registry for 23 years, and he finally matched a patient,” Shirley said in a telephone interview. “So you never really know when.”

He is touched by the people he comes in contact with who are willing to donate bone marrow to critically ill patients.

“It’s incredible that an individual would be willing to donate part of themselves to a complete stranger to save their lives,” Shirley said. “I’m really blessed to work with these individuals.”

A week after Giebink got the news, he underwent blood tests at Billings Clinic. His mother, Rita Giebink, snapped a photo of one of the handfuls of vials filled with her son’s blood required for testing.

“They want to make sure you’re the best match for the patient,” he said.

As it turned out, Giebink was a perfect match for the woman who will receive his bone marrow donation. He was 10 out of 10 for the HLA markers, for which a donor has to be at least eight out of 10.

“One thing I found to be crazy, she had family members signed up for the registry and they weren’t a match for her,” Giebink said. “It’s just total chance.”

He also underwent a complete physical at St. Vincent Healthcare to make sure he had no hidden medical problems that would render him unable to donate. With everything a go, Giebink spent the five days receiving four injections a day of filgrastim, to stimulate the growth of blood-stem cells.

When it comes to the actual donation, Shirley said, it can be done two ways. About 70 to 80 percent of the time, peripheral blood stem cells are collected through a nonsurgical process called apheresis.

It’s the same method blood centers use to collect donated plasma, he said, with a needle placed in one arm to collect the blood, which goes into a centrifuge to collect the blood-forming cells. The rest of the blood returns to the body through a second needle.

The second option, performed in an operating room, involves collecting bone marrow with a needle from the lower back area, behind both sides of the pelvis, while the patient receives anesthesia. Full recovery from the procedure can take from a week to a month, depending on the patient, Shirley said.

The method is chosen “based on what the patient’s physician thinks what is best for that patient’s specific condition and what they think is the best chance for beating the disease,” he said.

Giebink, who regularly donates blood, isn’t nervous about going through apheresis. It will happen during his all-expenses-paid trip to Denver.

He can’t disclose the hospital he’ll be going to or how long he and his mother, who is going with him, will be in Denver. But Giebink did tell Van Atta that he’s been selected as a donor.

“I talk to her whenever I can just to see how she’s doing,” he said. “And she loves the idea that I’m doing this. She thinks it’s great.”

Giebink wants to tell his story so that other people will consider volunteering to be a bone marrow donor.

“I hope to get more people to register,” he said.


Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com