Students at the UEI College campus in Oceanside, California have been joining the Be The Match registry for many years as part of the campus’s annual community service efforts, but this year students were even more inspired to participate when they learned a fellow student was selected as a match, and he provided a life-saving bone marrow transplant to a complete stranger.
Emiliano Gonzales, an Automotive Technician student, said he joined the Be The Match registry in 2019 when he was going to school with his wife. When he got the call three years later that he was a match for a bone marrow transplant, he was surprised.
“I was skeptical of the whole thing,” he said. “They kept contacting me and were sending me information in emails about bone marrow. I didn’t realize donating bone marrow was a life or death situation until a couple more days after they contacted me. I looked into it more and found it was something really important.”
For patients with leukemia, lymphoma, and other life-threatening diseases, a bone marrow transplant is often the last resort for treatment and can be their only hope for a cure. Unfortunately, the process requires significantly more than the same blood type to match a patient with a donor. The most important matching factor is your human leukocyte antigen (HLA) which is determined by swabbing your cheek. Seventy percent of patients who need a transplant do not have a match within their family and finding a good match can be like finding a needle in a haystack. That’s where Be The Match comes in. The nonprofit created a global registry for possible donors over 30 years ago.
Many people who join the registry are never selected to become a donor. When Emiliano learned that, he felt it was important to say yes.
“It felt like it was an obligation for me to do my part, especially because it wouldn’t affect me as much,” he said. “It was nothing compared to the person who needed it. I decided if I was ever in a position of need or someone else in my family was, I would want someone else, even if it was a total stranger, to fulfill the obligation to help them.”
The process to donate took some time. Emiliano had to go through some physical exams and then receive injections of a medication that would encourage his body to produce more bone marrow. Other than some minor side effects from that medication, the donation itself was easy. He was connected to several machines and had to lay in a bed for three to four hours until the process was complete.
“Overall, the experience was interesting,” he said. “I got to learn a lot about bone marrow donation. The fact that I was able to help someone, I didn’t do it to feel good about myself or anything, I just felt the obligation to help someone.”
Emiliano said he doesn’t know anything about the patient he donated to. They have the option to reach out to him down the road if they wish. He continues to help others by sharing his story.
“A lot of students didn’t really want to go to the Be The Match presentation. But when Emiliano told them about his story, it inspired many to sign up and participate,” said George Hammel, one of Emiliano’s instructors at UEI. “It was kind of cool.”
Emiliano is not the first student who has been a match for the registry. Susan Cole, a Medical Assistant Instructor at the campus who has been the driving force in the Be The Match efforts at the campus, said she met one other student several years ago who was also a match. The presentation at the school results in nearly 200 students and staff signing up for the registry each year. Susan believes it is one of the largest group enrollments in the area.
“It’s amazing,” Susan said. “It’s amazing that something so simple as swabbing your cheek can determine if you can save someone’s life.”
To learn more about Be The Match visit www.bethematch.org.