Couriers transport gift of life
The snowflakes fell fast and furious, blanketing roads, shuttering runways and canceling Jim Frison’s flight. But what might be merely an inconvenience for some was a matter of life and death in this case.
Frison was gripping a bright blue cooler containing recently donated bone marrow on its way to a cancer patient, and it was Frison’s job to get it there. With just 48 hours to reach a patient to ensure the cells remain viable, volunteer couriers know just how dire a delay can be.
The National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), also known as Be the Match, worked to find Frison another flight, and he left one snowbound city for another the next morning.
“I noticed when I landed in the snow storm and was dashing through the terminal that the arrivals and departures displays showed all the departures were canceled. And all but one arrival was canceled, which was the flight I was on — because I was on that flight,” Frison recalled of the harrowing trip.
On his way to the hospital in a taxi, they passed cars that had spun off the road, and when he finally arrived, a lab tech was there to meet him, telling Frison the transplant would take place just 15 minutes later.
“When you make the delivery, you feel you’ve grown angel’s wings,” said the 67-year-old Frison, a resident of Arlington, Va. He’s one of 321 volunteers who transport marrow and blood stem cells worldwide for Be the Match, the largest donor program in the U.S.
“Once you get there, it’s an amazing feeling, knowing someone’s been handed life because of what you carried.”
Frison makes about 11 trips a year. In the five years he’s volunteered, he has traveled to six countries and more than 50 cities.
He became a courier because, after joining the National Bone Marrow Registry as a potential donor years ago, he was never matched with a patient with leukemia or lymphoma who could be helped before Frison turned 61, which is the cut-off age to donate marrow.
Life as a courier
Couriers live across the U.S., and are on call to make life-saving deliveries at least six times a year. While most trips are domestic, about a quarter of the trips span the globe.
While couriers range from age 21 to 73, Be the Match Volunteer Specialist Rut Kessel said that many are older adults who have time to travel on short notice.
“They’re pretty much just traveling, and that’s it. They have to be on call. It’s not a fun thing. It’s a stressful, get ‘er done kind of thing. It’s a huge commitment and a huge responsibility that they take on,” she said.
Most trips are two to four days long, and all travel and hotels are paid for by the program. After a delivery has been made, a volunteer can choose to spend additional time at the final destination — at their own expense, however.
Couriers must retire at 75, because the job requires stamina that might diminish past that age, Kessel said. “But [many couriers] don’t want to leave,” she added. “They take many trips a year, a lot more than the minimum of six. They really do enjoy being part of that healing process.”
How to become one
The program won’t be recruiting for new volunteers until next October, and most new couriers learn about the opportunity through word of mouth.
Kessel first screens applicants by phone. Those who make the cut attend training at the National Marrow Donor Program in Minneapolis. The training includes blood born pathogen training, how to keep everything confidential and safe, and how to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
Confidentiality means the couriers will never meet the donor or the recipient of the marrow they carry. And they cannot let anyone but airline officials know what they are carrying in the blue bags they must hold onto or have in their sight at all times.
Frison didn’t want to even divulge the cities he’s traveled to, although other volunteers don’t feel that violates confidentiality.
Their precious cargo contains blood-forming stem cells derived either from a donor’s bone marrow (collected via a surgical procedure from their pelvic bone), or from circulating blood whose stem cells have been boosted through injections of a medication for five days before the blood is taken.
Only about 30 percent of patients who need a bone marrow transplant can find a match within their own family. Fortunately, Be the Match has nearly 16 million potential marrow donors in its database. A patient’s likelihood of having a matched, available donor on the registry ranges from 66 to 97 percent, depending on their ethnic background.
A bone marrow transplant from an anonymous stranger saved Kate Christofides’s mother’s life several years ago. The Chevy Chase, Md., resident, who is her 30s, had joined the registry but wanted to do more.
When the life-saving bone marrow donation was delivered to her mother’s bedside in Texas, Christofides remembers asking, “How did it get to Houston? Did you Fed Ex it?” When she found out a human courier brought it, she applied to become one herself.
“It’s especially poignant whenever I go into a children’s hospital, or the one that my mother was treated in — where I practically lived for a while. I always feel so cleansed when I’m done with a trip,” she said.
Expect the unexpected
Jorn Dalboe feels similarly humbled to be a courier.
“To get the opportunity to be a link in the chain is extremely important. To know you have a hand in saving someone’s life or at least extending it….How often do you get an opportunity to do that? So that was my motivation for signing up,” said Dalboe, 65, who lives in Reston, Va., and is a retired photographer.
Like Frison, Dalboe also has a story about delivering marrow in a snowstorm. During a trip to Sweden to collect a donation last year, 10 inches of snow fell suddenly in an area that doesn’t usually get large amounts.
He grabbed a cab from the airport to the hospital, but became mired in a huge traffic jam when an accident blocked the road. Dalboe jumped out of the cab, ran past the accident and found another cab to take him to the hospital.
“You have to be ready and willing when the unexpected happens, and not panic in these situations,” he said.
Dalboe has traveled to countries as far flung as S. Africa, Israel and Singapore in the four years he has served as a courier.
One morning, soon after he signed up, Dalboe got an urgent email saying a courier that had been scheduled to travel had been hurt in an accident. Could Dalboe go instead? So he drove an hour to a hospital in Virginia to pick up the marrow, and by that evening was on a plane to London.
For Dalboe, important qualifications for the job include having traveled extensively in the past, being able to think on your feet and change plans at a moment’s notice, and a degree of physical fitness that allows you to dash through airports carrying a cooler that can weigh 20 pounds.
“I thought about it for a year, realizing it was a major commitment,” he said. “At first I thought, ‘I don’t know about this. I’m not a nurse or doctor or paramedic.’ But it turns out, that’s not really what they’re looking for.
“I realized I had what it takes, and am honored to have the opportunity to help save a life.”
To learn more about various volunteer opportunities with Be the Match, see https://bethematch.org/support-the-cause/participate/volunteer or email Rut Kessel at firstname.lastname@example.org.