Last spring, a mother of one of the women’s basketball players was suffering from a form of leukemia and needed a donor match to help fight the disease. In response, the women’s basketball team organized a bone marrow drive in conjunction with Delete Blood Cancer DKMS, the world’s largest bone marrow donor center.
“One of the defining characteristics of our student-athletes, and in fact of Emory students, is that they don’t just sit on the sidelines. When they see a need, they address it, and this is how positive change happens and this should be what playing sports teaches us,” Emory Athletics Director Tim Downes said of the DKMS drive.
At the drive, several athletes and other members of the Emory community came together to get their cheeks swabbed, and their samples were placed on the registry. If their cheek swabs proved to be a possible match, then the DKMS would contact them.
“I figured if I could get swabbed and get on the registry, maybe I could possibly be a match,” junior pitcher Lena Brottman said. “It was just a cool thing for everyone to do together.”
Since it is fairly uncommon that a person is a match for a patient in need, most of the individuals who get swabbed find that is the end of the process for them. However, for Brottman and men’s basketball Assistant Coach Chris Murphy, it was just the beginning.
About a year after getting their cheeks swabbed, Brottman and Murphy received a phone call from DKMS notifying them that they were potential stem cells matches.
“I thought I would go get swabbed and that would be it,” Murphy said. “So to get the email back, it was a little bit exhilarating and also a little bit scary in the same way because now it is like this is real.”
Murphy first heard from the DKMS in November, and Brottman in early December. To help the possible donors make their decisions regarding whether to donate or not, the DKMS provided the possible donors with plenty of supplemental materials about the procedure and all it entails.
While the decision to donate is not a simple one to make, for Brottman and Murphy, there was no doubt in their minds: they were going to do whatever they could to help.
“It is such a rare thing to be a match for someone, and you automatically are so excited and totally on board ready to do it,” Brottman said.
Before determining Brottman and Murphy were definite matches, the two needed to undergo further blood tests to verify that they were the best possible matches for the patients. Once confirmed, they would fly to Washington D.C. to have the actual procedure performed.
Murphy was originally supposed to have the procedure done in December, but because the patient had a setback, the donation was pushed to Jan. 21.
While the patient was anonymous, the doctors informed Murphy that he was a 60-year-old male and that this was his last chance at survival.
For Brottman, she and her mother flew out to Washington D.C. just two days after Murphy was there to have his blood stem cells collected. Brottman had hoped to make the trip to Georgetown Hospital, where the donation would take place, over winter break so that she would not miss any school or softball, but her date also was pushed back to January.
With the dates in January, the two donors would have to miss out on some of their team’s practices and/or games, as Murphy was in the middle of the basketball season and Brottman’s softball schedule was just about to begin.
“I was a little nervous especially because it is during the season and I have an entire team relying on me and I do not want to let any of them down, but you also have the potential to save a life,” Murphy said. “In the back of my head, I didn’t think I could have ever said no just because you can potentially save a life.”
However, Brottman’s teammates and coaches and Murphy’s players and colleagues were very understadning and impressed by their selfless acts.
“From October to March, we [the team] are so consumed with what we do. To do something as unselfish as that says a lot about his [Murphy’s] character,” said Jason Zimmerman, men’s basketball head coach.
With their team’s support, the two members of Emory Athletics decided to take the next steps and schedule a trip to Georgetown Hospital for a Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) collection.
In this method, the donor’s cells are collected via the bloodstream. For four days prior to the donation and on the day of collection, the donor receives filgrastim injections in order to increase the number of stem cells in the bloodstream.
On the day of the donation, the donor’s blood is removed from one arm and then passed through a machine that separates out the blood stem cells. The remaining blood is injected into the donor’s other arm, and the stem cells go to the patient.
Although the procedure has few negative side effects, it is a complicated and time-consuming process. But both Brottman and Murphy say it was well worth it for the possibility to save a life.
“The cliché [is] to give is better than to receive, [and] in this case, I really feel like it does feel that way,” Murphy said. “You just hope that it helps them out and whether it gives him a couple years or gives him a new shot.”
Brottman also reflects on how rewarding the entire process was for her.
“It is still so surreal. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to be able to be in that position and help someone,” Brottman said. “It is such a rare opportunity to make such a huge difference in someone’s life and it was a life changing experience for me.”
The University and its Athletics Department often talk about making a difference in people’s lives, and Brottman and Murphy’s decision to take part in the stem cell donation process exemplifies that.
“One of the key principles of our athletics program is that we should change the way that people think and act. Lena and Chris are inspiring,” Downes said.
It is not so often that one has the opportunity to potentially save a life or make a difference the way in which Brottman and Murphy did. But, both donors recommend that if people have the opportunity, they should have their cheeks swabbed to be placed on the registry and see if they are a match.
“I would do it all over again in a minute because you can save a life. It’s one of the coolest things to be able to do or say,” Murphy said. “And if I never accomplish anything ever in life, maybe I gave another guy a new shot, and I think that is a pretty good thing.”
— By Elizabeth Weinstein