It happened on an ordinary day in April of 2013. Gina Welsh was running errands and stopped by Walgreens Pharmacy in Conway to pick up a prescription. She had no idea that this stop on her errand list would change her life.
While picking up her prescription, the pharmacist told Gina about the bone marrow donor drive hosted by Walgreens and asked if she might want to sign up. The pharmacist explained that it was a simple process and that afterward Gina would be placed on the bone marrow donor list. Not giving it a second thought, Gina agreed and completed the application. The process was simple: the drive workers gave Gina two cotton swabs, she swabbed her cheeks as instructed, signed the application and went on her way. “I was glad to sign up to be a donor. I didn’t know if I would ever get called; I’ve heard people can be on those lists for years” said Gina.
Bone marrow donor lists are crucial. According to the website deletebloodcancer.org, someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer every three minutes. Only 30 percent of the diagnosed will find a match in their family for a bone marrow transplant or stem cell treatment. That leaves 70 percent of patients depending on the kindness of friends or even strangers to get the lifesaving treatment they will need.
One day in August of that same year, Gina received a call from a New York number dialing her cell phone. Like most of us, she didn’t recognize the number and didn’t answer. “After all, I don’t know anyone in New York,” said Gina. Listening to the voicemail she almost chalked it up as a prank call, but something told her to call the number back. During that return call she learned that she had been matched to a leukemia patient in another country. The patient was a man, but because of patient privacy laws that’s all they could tell her. “I got chills.” said Gina. “There was not a moment of hesitation; I knew I would see this through and help whoever I could.” After the call, Gina called her mother and father and told her husband. They were all immediately on board to help.
Gina was assigned a coordinator to help her with the confirmation process. “It was amazing to me how supportive the coordinators and counselors were,” said Gina. “There was always someone assigned to me to answer any questions or address concerns I had.” Gina began the confirmation process by completing more paperwork and an in-depth medical history, and was asked if she would want to donate bone marrow or stem cells. “I told my coordinator I was blessed to be healthy, and happy I was able to help someone, and to take whichever they needed.”
In November, just after Thanksgiving, Gina and her husband, Mike, flew to Washington D.C. for a checkup to confirm her health. At the hospital she underwent almost more tests than she can remember. “I had an in-depth physical exam, blood work, urinalysis, a chest x-ray, an EKG and a pregnancy test just to name a few. They checked everything, even my veins to make sure they were up to the task.” The tests were all done on site and results are available that day. All tests came back fine and she was approved. “While at the hospital for these tests I met some other people who were there for the same reason I was. What was really interesting to me were the various lengths of time everyone had been on the registry. One man I met was on the registry for so many years before he got called that he had forgotten all about signing up and I had only been on it for a few months.”
Donation was set for December. In preparation for the procedure, Gina took vitamins and increased her protein intake. “It was important for me to take care of myself and do exactly what the doctors told me so my body could prepare for the donation,” said Gina.
“My friends and family kept asking me what was taking so long,” said Gina. “What others didn’t understand is that while I was being prepared to give the donation the patient was being prepared to take the donation. I was told the patient was being given massive amounts of chemotherapy to kill off as much of the cancer as possible in order to give him his best chance of the stem cell treatment working.”
Gina couldn’t disclose the name of the D.C. hospital. “Confidentiality was of the upmost importance. I was not allowed to post anything online or tell any family or friends anything that might lead to identifying the patient I was going to help. We took some photos, but were very careful about what they showed. All we knew was it was a man from another country, and we were very careful to respect his privacy.”
On Sunday of donation week Gina began a series of filgrastim shots at the Sherwood Urgent Care Clinic in Conway. Filgrastim is used to decrease the chance of infection by increasing the white blood cell count in people who have certain types of cancer and receiving chemotherapy treatments. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday she dropped in at the clinic on her way to work for her shot. On Wednesday evening she and Mike caught a flight to Washington D.C.
Thursday was donation day. Gina was admitted to the hospital, given the last in her series of shots and prepared for the donation of stem cells. The nurses put a needle into each of Gina’s arms. The process pulled blood from her right arm, cycled it through a machine to extract stem cells, and back in to her through her left arm. The procedure took six hours and her blood was circulated through the machine six times. During the process, her coordinator and counselor with Delete Blood Cancer called several times to check on her and make sure everything was going well. “They were all so caring and friendly” said Gina. “From the moment we started this process the counselors, coordinators, nurses and doctors all worked like a well-oiled machine to take care of me and the patient. It was truly amazing how well everyone worked together. When we were finished with the donation a lady came in with a little cooler, loaded up the stem cells and they were flown out immediately.”
For months after the procedure she received calls from her counselors at Delete Blood Cancer asking how she was doing. “Even at this point, patient and donor confidentiality plays a role,” said Gina. “I would ask about the patient, but they couldn’t really tell me anything.” One year after the donation date coordinators will arrange for patient and donor to know with each other if both parties agree.
But tragically, six months after receiving stem cell treatment, Gina received word that the patient who received her stem cells had passed away. Through tears Gina told me about her feelings. “He was like my family even though we had never met” said Gina. “I wish the treatment had worked, but I know that because of my donation he lived six more months. That’s six months he wouldn’t have had with his family if I had not helped. I was given the option to contact his family, but I chose not to. I felt they needed to grieve and there was nothing I could do to help so I just let them be.”
When asked, Gina said she would donate again. There was no hesitation in her answer. “I would donate over and over again,” said Gina. “Even though the first person I donated to passed away it was a special gift for me to be able to give him six more months to be with his family. Finding out I was a match to someone was a great Christmas present for me. Some people say it’s just too much trouble to go through, and it’s really not. It’s just a little of your time. Someone is dying. What better way to spend your time than helping to save someone’s life? There are people out there who receive bone marrow transplants or stem cell treatment and go on to live happy, healthy, normal lives. It’s amazing to me that my stem cells can help someone live,” she said. “After each donation you have to wait two years to donate again. I can go back on the donor registry in January of 2016, and look forward to it. I will do it every time I am given the opportunity — no questions, no reservations. There are people of all ages, children and adults alike, who suffer from diseases like leukemia. It would be wonderful if there was a match for each and every one.”
Gina Welsh doesn’t wear a cape and she has no super powers, but I think she is a hero. She could have decided her time was better spent doing almost anything else during the holidays, but she chose to help someone in need. Someone she didn’t even know.