Dark red blood pumped through the intravenous line and into a whirring machine in the hospital room.
Nataley Raker lounged in a bed at Franciscan Health Indianapolis and watched as her healthy blood cells were collected. The Greenwood resident had been asked to donate her peripheral blood stem cells — which are the building bloods of healthy blood — as she was an ideal genetic match for an adult blood cancer patient.
She had been connected to the patient through the Be the Match bone marrow registry. His second chance at life was made possible through that decision to donate.
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“It would be a new beginning to his life,” Raker said. “He and his whole family had been waiting for this the whole time. It’s weird to think that if I had never joined the registry, what would have happened?”
Nearly one year after signing up for the bone marrow registry, Raker was able to provide a complete stranger with a chance to beat his blood cancer. With the entire experience behind her, she has embraced the opportunity to educate more people about bone marrow donation and the Be the Match registry.
“Everyone who has found out what I was doing had no idea about the registry. I didn’t know about it either. More people need to know,” she said.
The National Marrow Donor Program operates the Be the Match registry. More than 13 million people have signed up to be potential donors, including 537,000 last year.
The registry is vital because 70 percent of blood cancer patients do not have a fully matched donor in their own family; they rely on strangers to provide the lifesaving bone marrow transplants, according to the National Marrow Donor Program.
Raker, a 2015 graduate of Greenwood Community High School, is a student at the University of Indianapolis where she’s studying elementary and special education.
She was inspired to sign up for the bone marrow registry by Cooper Davis and his family. Cooper, now 13, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2015. The Greenwood teen has been going through chemotherapy for almost two years and is slated to finish his treatment in July.
Raker grew up in the same neighborhood as the Davises and attended the same Little League games that Cooper was so active in. They were friendly acquaintances, waving hello any time they passed each other on the street.
When Cooper was diagnosed with leukemia, it was hard for Raker to see someone she knew suffering. She followed the battle on Facebook, and when the family advocated the registry, Raker decided to take part in May 2016.
“I thought it would be easy, just sign up for that. I didn’t think anything would come from it,” Raker said.
The initial process to sign up is simple. The National Marrow Donor Program sent her a registration kit, which contained sterile equipment for donors to swab their cheek and sent it back to registry organizers.
The cells captured in the kit will be analyzed and kept on file. That database is then used to compare to blood cancer patients in need of a transplant.
Raker was contacted by transplant officials in October, indicating that she had the potential to be a match. They asked her to give a blood sample so that further tests could be run, and analysts could determine how closely her genetic profile matched to patient in need.
Working with Indiana Blood and Marrow Transplantation at Franciscan Health Indianapolis, she gave her blood sample and waited 60 days to find out if she was a full match.
Raker received confirmation on Dec. 16 that she was the perfect candidate. But at the time, the patient was not in good enough health for the transplant.
“So any time, I had to be ready for them to call me,” she said.
That call came in March just before her 20th birthday, setting in motion the transplant details. They scheduled it for April, and Raker proceeded to get even more blood work done and a full physical examination.
Days before the donation, she started taking injections of filgrastim in each arm that boosted her white blood cell count and pushed the blood stem cells into her blood stream, where it could be more easily collected.
On the day of the donation, she returned to Franciscan Health. A final injection of filgrastim primed her for collection, and she was wheeled back for the actual procedure.
Transplant specialists tapped a vein in one of Raker’s arms, where her blood traveled through tubes to a machine that separated the blood stem cells. The stem cells went into a collection bag, and the remaining blood went through a intravenous line into Raker’s other arm, back into her body.
“I thought it was really neat to see. You could see it all happening right there. It looked like a bag of tomato juice,” she said.
Sandy Davis visited Raker in the hospital, bringing her flowers and praised her donation on social media. Raker was glad that to have the Davis family support her.
“I would never have gotten on the list without them, so we wanted Cooper and his mom to know they helped save someone’s life as well,” she said.
Though she felt slightly fatigued afterwards, Raker didn’t experience any pain or side effects from the procedure. By the next day, she felt fine.
Raker will get an update in mid-May to let her know how the patient is faring, and subsequent updates will come at six months and one year. After a year has passed, she can potentially meet the donor, as long as he agrees.
Though she doesn’t know if she’ll ask to meet him, just knowing how she was able to impact his life makes the entire experience worth it.
“The worst I felt was kind of sick and a little tired, so that wasn’t great. But knowing that I was going to save someone’s life made me feel pretty positive about the whole thing,” she said.
To sign up for the Be the Match bone marrow registry, go to join.bethematch.org/Indiana to sign up.
You will be asked to fill out a short survey about your ethnicity and health background.
Potential donors need to be between the ages of 18 and 60.
Registry organizers will mail a registration kit to you, which will allow you to take a cheek swab at home and mail the sample back.
The swab is only what organizers use to place you on the registry. It is not an actual donation.
People who join are asked to stay committed to donating marrow, including responding quickly if contacted about donation.
Potential matches will be asked to commit 20 to 30 hours over a four- to six-week period to attend appointments and donate.
People will remain on the donor registry until they turn 61.