Whitney Sewell

Clemson University graduate student and Be the Match bone marrow donor Whitney Sewell shares a moment with Lachlan the Tiger before her commencement ceremony, May 11, 2017.
Image Credit: Ken Scar

When Whitney Sewell thinks back on her time as an undergraduate student in Clemson’s School of Nursing, she remembers faculty stressing that its students should lead by example. During a 2010 bone marrow drive on campus, Sewell thought a great way to do this was to encourage other students to get a cheek swab alongside her and join the registry managed by Be the Match, the world’s leading non-profit organization focused on saving lives through cellular therapy.

Sewell succeeded. Cheeks were swabbed. Names were added to the registry. That was that.

Sewell graduated, joined the work force and later returned to Clemson to pursue a degree as a family nurse practitioner, a degree she earned during this month’s graduation ceremony. After seven years, Sewell had all but forgotten about the registry, but that changed in March when she emerged from a long day of clinicals to a voicemail, text messages and an email from Be the Match.

“I was confused at first and then I was just speechless,” Sewell said. “At 20 years old the possibility that you might one day be able to save a life doesn’t really hit you. It’s a really cool feeling when it does.”

Sewell underwent a more thorough round of blood tests, and after the patient’s surgeon took a closer look at the blood work, the surgeon told Sewell she was a near-perfect match for a 14-year-old male patient in need of bone marrow. Although representatives from Be the Match continually stressed that Sewell could opt out at any time, she was committed.

According to Be the Match, the best transplant outcomes occur when a patient’s human leukocyte antigen and that of a registry member like Sewell closely match. Matches don’t occur often; while about 1 in 40 registry members will be called for additional testing, only about 1 in 430 will actually donate.

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Sewell’s mother insisted she get a photo with her tiger rag before surgery.
Image Credit: Whitney Sewell

Sewell was an even rarer case. On April 17, she became one of only a few donors who have to undergo surgery to extract the bone marrow. Surgeons had to intubate Sewell and put her to sleep, so as bone marrow extraction goes it was as involved as it could possibly be on the part of the donor. Sewell’s experience was a special case, as most donations of perphrial blood stem cells are similar to giving blood and not nearly as involved as undergoing surgery.

“I’ve gone through nothing compared to what the patient or patient’s family has probably gone through,” Sewell said. “I just needed to stay on a regular maintenance dose of an over-the-counter pain reliever; after a week, I was fine.”

According to Ashley Collier, senior community engagement manager for Be the Match, college students are the most important demographic the organization targets, as 90 percent of all donors are between the ages of 18 and 24. She said the age group is the most requested by transplant centers when looking for matches, but the biggest challenge with college students is whether or not they will follow through once contacted.

“All events and bone marrow drives vary in success, but unfortunately the back-out rates related to college students are the highest,” Collier said. “It’s great that Whitney did what she signed up to do, especially after so many years. There’s no limit to the number of potential donors we can add, so the more committed people we add the better the chance for a match.”

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Sewell (right) spent a great deal of her undergraduate experience in the Nursing Simulation Lab. Here she simulates delivering a baby along with fellow students and faculty.
Image Credit: Whitney Sewell

Sewell said she will be updated at three and six months as to how successful the transplant was, and after a year if both sides are willing she may even get to meet the patient. Until then, Sewell is concentrating on finishing up her graduate program and placing the extra letters behind her name that identify her as a family nurse practitioner.

She said her experience will allow her to raise awareness among the many patients she will see throughout her career regarding the importance of registries like Be the Match. Sewell said she won’t just be advocating for a great choice a person can make for a complete stranger, she’ll be leading by example.

“I certainly wasn’t planning on ever donating bone marrow, but I am so glad that I got the opportunity,” Sewell said. “I hope my experience might help other people see what the process is like, especially if you do end up being a rare match.”

For more information or to register as a bone marrow donor, visit http://join.bethematch.org/whitneyclemson.

See the story of Lachlan the Tiger here.