PLATTSBURGH – Ted Islas was in the prime of life, a successful New York state trooper with 23 years experience and a bright future ahead.
Then, in September 2009, Islas was diagnosed with leukemia, and his future depended on how well he would respond to treatments, including chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant from his own tissue.
“Everything seemed to be going well until March of 2012 when I had a relapse,” Islas said recently from his hospital room at Albany Medical Center.
“I felt fine all through that time period (when he was undergoing treatment prior to the relapse). I was back to work; my life was pretty much back to normal. People would ask me how I was doing, and I’d say (the cancer) was just a distant memory. I wasn’t too concerned.”
Before his initial diagnosis, Islas was having shortness-of-breath issues when he exercised.
“I had always stayed in pretty good shape, but now when I went for a run, I tired more quickly than I should have. When I played basketball, I didn’t have the wind I normally do.”
He went to the doctor’s to have things checked out, and tests eventually revealed leukemia.
But when his relapse occurred earlier this year, he was having problems with sore gums and other muscular pain, and subsequent tests confirmed that his leukemia was back.
This time, treatment focused on an international bone-marrow donor program that would match him with a compatible donor for a bone-marrow transplant.
“I was scheduled to go to Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston on July 4,” he said of the successful search for a donor match. “But then I was admitted back to Albany Medical Center with another relapse. It is frustrating, sitting here now when I was three days from going to Dana Farber.”
Recent tests have confirmed that Islas is now in remission, but doctors want his white blood-cell count to increase a bit more before rescheduling his marrow transplant.
There are 10 million people currently on the Be The Match Marrow Donor Program in the United States and another six million across the globe. Even still, finding a matching donor is a long shot.
“You’re looking at a match on the DNA level,” said Jennifer St. Peter, account executive for the Be The Match Program at the Rhode Island Blood Center. “It’s not like matching for a handful of blood types; you literally have a million possibilities (to find the right match).”
St. Peter was in Plattsburgh recently during a bone-marrow donor drive at CVPH Medical Center.
“When someone undergoes a bone-marrow transplant, they have chemotherapy to kill off their own bone marrow, and then the healthy donor cells are transplanted and will hopefully restart the production of healthy cells,” she explained.
“About five out of 10 patients are currently getting the transplants they need,” she said. “The two main reasons are that a matching donor can’t be found or the patient is too sick to undergo the procedure.”
Potential donors fill out some paperwork and then submit a cheek swab that is used to place them on the registry. There are no other requirements unless they receive a call that they are a possible match for a patient.
“If you agree (to be considered as a donor), you’ll be asked to give a blood sample or another cheek swab sample for further testing,” St. Peter said.
If those tests confirm that a donor is the best possible match, the donor will be asked to begin a four-week period of appointments leading up to the donation.
Typically, doctors will request a peripheral blood stem-cell donation, which is similar to donating blood, though only blood-forming cells are removed.
The closest center for donating bone marrow is Dartmouth-Hitchcock in New Hampshire, and the procedure itself takes about four hours to complete. The National Marrow Donor Program reimburses donors for travel expenses and may reimburse other costs on a case-by-case basis.
But the true reward for donating is to give people with blood disorders increased odds that they will beat the disease.
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