A month after being matched with a leukemia patient, Ashlyn was donating stem cells to save a life
Among the things that fascinate future doctor Ashlyn are cancer and infectious diseases. Currently a microbiology and biochemistry major at Tulane and looking ahead to medical school later this year, she never dreamed she would be called upon to help cure cancer during a pandemic.
In 2018, while an undergraduate at Miami University, Ohio, Ashlyn, a Delta Delta Delta sorority sister, sat down to write fundraising letters during the chapter’s annual day of philanthropy in March, when one of her sisters approached her with a swab kit. Would Ashlyn like to join the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, and possibly save a life someday?
“I decided to swab on the spur of the moment,” she said. “I felt joining the registry aligned with my interests and would be a nice thing to do. I might be able to offer someone a living transplant without giving up a kidney.” She completed her swab kit and didn’t think about it again for two years, when she got a call.
“It was March 2020, and I was a definite match for a patient, a man who was battling to survive leukemia,” said Ashlyn. “I never thought I would really be a match, and when I started going through the medical questions, I was afraid I wouldn’t actually be able to donate due to a platelet transfusion when I was a baby, but it turned out to be good and I went forward.”
When she told her family the exciting news, her father, a family physician, said, “Of course you’ll donate,” but her mother wasn’t so sure. Ashlyn found the process to be fascinating and assured her mom that it was just like when she had donated platelets to her (Ashlyn) when she was a baby. After that her mom was on board, and even came with her to the collection center.
“In spite of flying during the stay-at-home order, travel was super easy thanks to Gift of Life,” said Ashlyn. “It would have been difficult to organize on our own with everything going on, but all we had to do was show up.”
They arrived a week early in order for Ashlyn to receive shots of Neupogen to stimulate her bone marrow to produce extra stem cells and mobilize them into her circulating blood for collection. “I could have had the shots at home, but we were worried that the airport might be shut down, so we came in early,” said Ashlyn. “The National Guard met our plane and everyone had to complete a questionnaire, then I had to promise to self-quarantine at the hotel.” That part was no problem; the only guests in the hotel were Gift of Life stem cell donors, and nearly all businesses in the area around the hotel were closed.
A few days later she was ready for stem cell collection, with her mother right by her side. “It was great to have a Nintendo Switch available. Since I couldn’t move my left arm I could hold a controller in each hand and play Animal Crossing on the TV,” said Ashlyn.
While donating Ashlyn and her mom also shared some of their thoughts with Gift of Life.
“There was a young man donating at the same time in another pod, and the nurse told us that men usually produce more stem cells than women, so of course we ended up in a sort of race to see who could get their stem cells out first.” Although he won, it was only by a few minutes, as both donors finished collection in about four hours, a process that normally averages six hours. The cells were then cryopreserved, so that any travel delays experienced by the couriers would not affect either the cells or the patients.
“I posted in social media that I was going to donate, as everyone is at home and I knew my friends would quickly realize I was somewhere else,” she said. “That’s when I learned that a friend’s father had a marrow transplant years ago and was cured of leukemia, and other friends asked how they could join the registry, too.”
As a future physician, Ashlyn is especially interested in knowing how her recipient recovers, and looks forward to the possibility of meeting in the future.
“I’ll understand if he wants privacy, cancer is incredibly difficult to go through, but I would like to know that he recovers,” she said. “Even though it was spur of the moment when I registered, I never had any doubts about donating. If you are thinking of joining the registry, just go ahead and swab. If you’ve been called, but you aren’t sure, just talk to Gift of Life first – in fact all the information is right there on their website. Everyone there just wants to help people in need.”
Ashlyn plans to begin medical school this year and expects to dual degree with both M.D. and Ph. D. degrees. Her goal is to practice medicine while teaching and conducting research, although she hasn’t yet decided whether infectious diseases or cancer will be her specialty. In her free time she loves computer games and is an equestrienne, and participated on the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team at Miami University, Ohio.