BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN Mike McAllister didn’t think much of it when his mouth was swabbed and he signed up for the CW Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Recruitment and Research Program eight years ago, while serving in the Navy in Washington.
“Eight years later, they tracked me down in Minnesota,” McAllister said of the program referred to as Salute to Life. “I didn’t even remember I had registered for it . . . They told me you signed up for this bone marrow registry. They told me I was a preliminary match and they asked me if I would go to a local lab to get some blood drawn for further testing.”
He didn’t hesitate.
After that initial testing, he was asked to fly out to the Washington, DC, area for a physical April 2.
That physical confirmed McAllister was a match for a 70-year-old man in Sweden who had leukemia.
He started making plans for a return trip for the procedure, but not before being told about some of the risks involved.
“They give all this information it seems like to try to get you to change your mind,” McAllister said. “But, I told them during one of their many speeches, ‘You can save it. I’m gonna do it. There’s no reason not to help somebody else out.’”
But, he understood the purposes of those speeches, as well.
“They need to know you fully understand the side effects and the possible complications and how the whole procedure works,” McAllister said.
He and his wife, Ashley, explained to their three children what Mike would be doing.
“At first she was really sad we were leaving,” McAllister said. “Then we told her why I was going. Then she started asking, ‘How many days until you go save a man’s life?’”
The couple flew out to the DC area April 19.
They spent seven hours site-seeing that first day, not knowing if he would have energy to do much the rest of the trip.
The process is called a peripheral blood stem cell donation.
It starts with a shot of filgrastim in each arm for five mornings straight.
“What that does is pull the bone marrow out into your blood stream,” McAllister said.
Receiving those shots was not a pleasant experience.
“The shots are pretty wild, too,” McAllister said. “I was in the military, and we had to do a series of anthrax shots, and that’s what these are like. They feel like hot lava in your arm.”
On the fifth day, McAllister received one more shot. Then, 20 minutes later, the six-hour process of filtering bone marrow out of his blood stream began.
The amount of marrow needed depends on the size of the recipient. In McAllister’s case, the recipient was a 150-pound male, so more marrow was required for him.
“Another person we were there with, his recipient was a female, sot hey didn’t need quite as much,” Ashley McAllister said.
Mike McAllister was astounded by the process.
“It’s kind of wild to think about how far technology and medication have come,” he said. “I wonder who was the first guy who said, ‘I wonder if we can pull your bone marrow out into your blood stream?’”
After the process, a courier took a bag of McAllister’s bone marrow and plasma to Sweden. There is a 48-hour window for it to be transferred from one individual to the next.
The McAllisters won’t know for a year if the bone marrow donation worked for the recipient, unless more marrow is needed in the meantime.
“They’ll reach out to me and let me know what happened, and how it went, and I’ll possibly get to meet the gentleman, or interact at least,” McAllister said.
For McAllister, it was worth a try, even though he experienced some painful side effects.
“I had bone pain in some big areas like my hips, sternum, tailbone, spine, and my skull, unfortunately,” McAllister said. “That doesn’t happen for everyone, but I guess I was one of the lucky ones.”
Statistics show there is only a 20 percent chance of being a perfect bone marrow match. Now that McAllister has donated once, those odds go down to 2 percent.
He encourages others to sign up to join a bone marrow registry.
“If you can help somebody else, you should help somebody else,” he said. “ . . . I don’t understand why you wouldn’t do it if you can. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”