A gift of oneself

Thanks to a forgotten action years ago, Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering doctoral student Sarah Saunders (B.S.’17/Biomedical Engineering ) was called on to save a stranger’s life. Here’s the story — in her own words.

Sarah Saunders
From left: Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering doctoral student Sarah Saunders in VCU’s Engineered Tissue Multiscale Mechanics and Modeling (ETM³) Laboratory (photo by Noreen O’Brien,); Saunders at Georgetown University Hospital in October (photo courtesy of Sarah Saunders).

When I was a freshman at VCU, my dorm held a bone marrow registry drive.

As a biomedical engineering student back then, I knew that for patients with blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, a bone marrow transplant from the right donor can be the difference between life and death. A bone marrow donor has to be a perfect match for the patient, and I knew it was crucial to have as many people as possible on the donor registry.

The drive was coordinated through the Be the Match Foundation, operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, the world’s largest, most diverse bone marrow registry.

Joining this registry only required a swab of my cheek. My DNA would then be stored in a large database, waiting until a patient who was a match needed it. I was told there was only a slim chance that a match would ever come along. The donation process didn't seem very risky and it would cost me nothing to participate, so I agreed and added my DNA to the registry.

Imagine my surprise seven years later when I got the call that someone who was a match needed my help.

I didn't even remember registering.

A life-altering decision

I got that call in April, right when social distancing was really going into effect and COVID-19 had everyone afraid. I was unsure if it was something I should do, or how dangerous it would be, because it would require traveling from Richmond to D.C. a couple of times.

Hesitation aside, I knew that this was different from volunteering. I could donate money or recycle or volunteer. But here was a patient with a blood cancer and, it turns out, I, among potentially everyone in the world, was in the best position to save their life. The tangible opportunity to save someone’s life is so compelling and immediate that taking the essential step of saying yes took no effort at all.

I think my decision was irrevocably made when they told me the age of my match: only 21 years old. Younger than I am now. I couldn't imagine having leukemia and going through a pandemic at the same time, or the effect that would have on my family. I felt that if it was in my ability to help, then it was my responsibility to help. The way I was raised, if you can do something to help someone, you should. Period.

Ready and waiting. And waiting.

When patients undergo a bone marrow transplant, they need to be healthy and in remission. This is because before a transplant occurs, doctors have to irradiate the patient to kill all their existing, diseased cells.

Originally, I was all set up to donate in June, but my recipient’s condition deteriorated and they canceled the procedure. I was crushed for them and their family, being so close, and then having that chance taken away. I made sure they knew that if they recovered I would still agree to the procedure. Luckily, in September I got the call that their condition had improved. We went through with the donation Oct. 29 at Georgetown University Hospital.

Bonded for life

I am not allowed to know any identifying information about my recipient until a year down the road, so I can't provide any information about this person’s story. My recipient could be anywhere in the world: 51% of transplants through Be the Match involve an international donor or recipient.

If we both consent, we can meet after that year mark, but either of us could choose to remain anonymous. All I know is their age, disease and that we most likely share similar ancestry. I also know this experience is now an important part of my story.

I wonder about my recipient quite a bit. I hope they are a good person. I hope they feel excited about the future. I hope one day I may get to meet them. I envision them getting to spend the holidays with their family at home, or possibly planning a big trip to go tour another country. I constantly wonder if we are similar in looks considering our similar DNA. It’s a connection that is hard to put into words, but I know I will always care about them in some capacity and wonder how their life is going.

I think this experience opened a door to truly caring for someone I knew nothing about. I am invested in the well-being of this person on a level I hadn’t previously experienced. I hope in the future I can carry that same level of empathy into all the work I do, and continue to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

My message to the friend I’ve never met

I was able to write a letter to my recipient. It took me the longest time to figure out what I wanted to say, or if I should even say anything at all. This is a small excerpt:

“I am sending you all of my well wishes and prayers for a speedy and effective recovery. I have heard that sometimes, when a soldier heads home from a war, that they aren’t the same person they were when they left home. You have been in a fight for your life, and I imagine that you are no longer the same person you were when it started. As your road to recovery begins, I hope you are able to leave the fight behind you, and do not feel afraid or anxious about your future. Make big plans, celebrate as often as possible, and never back down from a cause you believe in. Do this with confidence and the knowledge that I will always be in your corner.”

My message to you

I would really like to take this opportunity to encourage more people to volunteer and hold more bone marrow registry drives around campus. People can also simply register online, and Be the Match will send you a kit.

One thing that really surprised me was learning that the majority of donors that come to Georgetown aren't even local. They get bone marrow donors from all over the country, the West Coast included, but so few donors from closer to home.

During the pandemic, so many people have been afraid to travel by plane that Georgetown has had many people canceling their donations. If we had more people from our VCU community register to be bone marrow donors, we could make a difference and save lives during these crazy times.

College campuses are the perfect place to recruit because students are the ideal age for donation, and will remain prime donor candidates for a long time.That’s why I hope to spread awareness.

It's so rare to get to make a difference in somebody's life in such a direct way. I know so many people that would if they were given the opportunity. And I want them to know that opportunity is waiting.

The Be the Match website lists several opportunities to help the cause, including individual registration by mail.