Kenai man donates stem cells, saves life
KENAI — Every time he was asked “are you sure you want to move to the next step?” Chris DesOrmeaux’s answer was always “yes.”
Yes, he wanted to save a life.
About three years ago Chris, 25, of Kenai, registered online at marrow.org to become a bone marrow donor or peripheral blood stem cell donor through Be The Match — National Marrow Donor Program. After signing up, the registry program mailed Chris a mouth swab packet that he sent back to be tested on three components of donor-recipient compatibility.
In late February, Chris was contacted by the program and asked if he would be interested in doing further testing to see if he was the best match for a 57-year-old man diagnosed with multiple melanoma.
For the seven remaining components of the compatibility testing, Chris did four different blood tests. He said, through the whole process, people from the program contacted him asking if he wanted to continue and giving detailed descriptions of the steps involved with donating.
Chris was originally asked to donate bone marrow — a very painful process that involves being put under anesthesia and stuck with needles in the ilium bones in the hips. The procedure is followed by a long recovery time. It takes about six weeks to replenish the bone marrow.
But, based on the recipient’s health status, doctors opted for a stem cell donation through blood work instead. Sarah DesOrmeaux, Chris’s wife, was relieved when he received this news because she was nervous about the bone marrow harvesting procedure.
Not only is it less risky for the donor, but doctors are able to recognize sooner — in five days — with a stem cell donation whether the donation is doing what it needs to for the patient, Chris was informed by the organization. With a bone marrow, it takes about three weeks for the donation to establish itself within the recipient’s system.
Seeing the other side
The organization paid to fly Chris and Sarah to Seattle, the closest donation site to the patient, to make the donation.
Before leaving for Seattle on May 12, Sarah mentally prepared for an emotional trip.
Sarah’s late husband lost his battle against bone cancer at the University of Washington Medical Center. If Chris had donated bone marrow, the couple would have been at the same medical center, but, with the stem cell collection, Chris donated at the Puget Sound Blood Center.
Even though they were at a different medical center, the experience did bring up memories of her late husband that caused Sarah to “tear up” a few times.
But she said it was a powerful experience being on the other end of the process.
“I think that is was cool for me to see it from a different perspective because the last time I dealt with cancer, I was in that co-pilot chair, and we were fighting it,” Sarah said. “This time I was in a different position, and it was pretty cool to be able to be on both sides. But, more importantly, being able to tell Chris the power he was giving that family ... He’s giving that man the option of living.”
Even though Chris didn’t have to go undergo surgery to donate stem cells, it was still an uncomfortable experience.
After the couple arrived in Seattle, Chris received two shots each day for five days of a drug called filgrastim to increase the number of stem cells in his bloodstream, from his normal count of 3,800 to 50,000.
“Even though they described how you’re going to feel, I didn’t really understand until I was feeling it,” Chris said. “It is really painful. The sternum was probably the worst. It felt like when you get the wind knocked out of you, like the initial one or two seconds of that, but all the time. Every time I coughed or sneezed, it almost brought me to my knees.”
Chris said he kept reminding himself that the pain was worth it. His donation could add 10 years to the life of his recipient. Chris said he would think about how much he has seen in the past 10 years and what the patient could experience in 10 more years.
“You can see grandkids born,” he said. “You can see grandkids grow up. It’s pretty crazy.”
Chris also thought about how much pain the patient must have suffered in his battle with cancer and how five days of pain was so minimal in comparison.
With stem cell donations, Chris was told that the recipient has all his stem cells removed the week before the donation, leaving his immune system very weak.
“It’s basically a point of no return (for the recipient),” he said, “and the donor, me, still has the option to back out at that point.”
Knowing what risk the patient was taking made the whole experience and opportunity to donate even more honorable, Chris said.
The hardest part
After getting two shots a day from May 13-16 and spending the rest of those days exploring Seattle and eating “killer food,” May 17 — donation day — came. Chris got his last shot, and, an hour later, was set up for the stem cell harvest.
Two steel, 18 gauge needles were inserted, one into each of his arms; Chris was unable to move or bend his arms. Blood pumped out of one arm, and circulated through a machine that drew out the stem cells. The blood was then transferred back into Chris’s body through the needle in his other arm. The process lasted about six hours.
The organization contact that Chris has been working with through the entire process would be the one to deliver the stem cells to his recipient, Chris said. In a month the organization will contact Chris to let him know how the patient’s body was responding the donation.
Chris said the procedure is tiring because donors lose a lot of iron with the cells. He said he felt exhausted for five to six days, and took four-hour naps in the afternoon for a few days. On May 21, he was able to go to work at Central Peninsula Hospital. He works at the outpatient lab per diem, about two shifts per week, during his weeks off from his job as a correctional officer at Wildwood Correctional Center.
Sarah, who considered registering when Chris did three years ago, but didn’t because she was pregnant, was able to donate to help save someone’s life while at the blood center as well. While Chris was stuck in bed for 6 hours, she went next door and donated blood.
She said she used to donate regularly, but hasn’t been able to give blood for a while because their blood center closed and the couple’s youngest child, MaKenna, is only 16 months old.
Even though he endured a lot of pain and waited for blood to circulate in and out of his body for six hours, Chris said the hardest part of the donation was being away from his three kids. Sarah agreed.
The trip was the first time in the six years the couple has been married that they were away from their children for a significant amount of time.
Sarah said on the first day of their trip, not even 24 hours after leaving the Kenai Peninsula, they visited the Space Needle. While there, she saw a little girl in a poofy dress twirling to a Frank Sinatra song. Seeing that little girl made her miss her daughter and two sons.
“Every time we’d see a little kid we’d go, ‘Aw, we miss our kids,’” she said.
Chris said when they would call their kids from Seattle, their 3-year-old son, Kaiser, would ask where they went and why they didn’t take him with them.
“That was super hard,” Chris said.
Sarah said their oldest child, Jonathan Hawkins, 14, whose father was Sarah’s late husband, thought it was cool that Chris was donating, but was relieved that Chris wouldn’t have to be put under to help save a life.
The DesOrmeaux’s posted photos and information about Chris’ donation experience on Facebook. He said from that, they inspired people to register, but they want to take it a step further by holding a registry drive this summer where people will be able to sign up and do the mouth swab onsite.
According to Be the Match, one in every 40 U.S. registry members are called for additional testing to see if they are the best match for a patient, and about 1 in 300 are selected as a best donor. One in every 540 U.S. members goes on to donate bone marrow or stem cells. American Indians and Alaska Natives have the second lowest percentage of potential donors at just 1 percent.
Chris said registering is not committing to donating. If the organization does ask for further testing to determine the best match, declining is always an option.
“They’re definitely not pressuring when they call, if they do find a match,” Chris said.
When he signed up, Chris said he didn’t do much research prior to filling out the form, but he had heard it was procedure painful.
“The main thought was, ‘Why not?’” he said. “There’s probably not too many people willing to go through that much pain for a stranger.”
Chris said Sarah and the organization are advocates that the pain donors go through really does save a life.
“That’s one thing the organization really pushes is you saved a life, he said,” and I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ It’s pretty cool.”