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Ashland resident to host stem cell donor drive

Photo courtesy of DKMS Blood stem cell donor Tony Ortega is encouraging people to register to become donors.
People can register to donate Thursday

While between jobs and living at a California homeless shelter, Tony Ortega decided to give someone else a second chance at life.

He registered online to become a blood stem cell donor. A year later, Ortega got the call that his cells were a match for a patient. He donated stem cells to a complete stranger in 2018.

Now an Ashland resident with a home and a job, Ortega is helping again by hosting a blood stem cell donor registration drive with the international nonprofit organization DKMS.

Anyone in good health between ages 18-55 can learn more and register by dropping by the Shop’n Kart grocery store, 2268 Ashland St., between 2 and 5 p.m. Thursday. The donor drive coincides with St. Patrick’s Day.

“You can be that lucky match,” Ortega said.

Registering takes only minutes. Potential registrants review medical eligibility criteria, fill out a registration form, swab the insides of their cheeks, and leave their completed kits with Ortega, who will ship the sealed kits to DKMS.

People who can’t attend the registration drive Thursday can register by ordering a free swab kit at dkms.org. More information about the blood stem cell donation process is also available at that website.

Blood stem cells can be used to treat blood cancers such as leukemia and other blood-related illnesses. To help the most people and get the best matches, donors are needed from all ethnicities, according to DKMS, which has registered more than 11 million people worldwide as potential donors.

Most people who get leukemia or another serious blood illness don’t have an available match from within their own family. According to DKMS, 70% of patients rely on donors who are not their family members.

For the donation process, bone marrow is taken through a syringe from the donor’s pelvic bone in about 20% of cases. The donor is under general anesthesia. After the procedure, the donor may feel pain similar to a bruise, DKMS said.

In the other 80% of cases, blood is drawn from a donor’s arm, passed through a machine that filters out blood stem cells, and then passed back into the donor’s body through the other arm.

To increase the amount of stem cells before the donation, donors receive a five-day course of synthetic protein that signals their bone marrow to release extra amounts of stem cells into their bloodstream. Donors may feel flu-like symptoms during that time, DKMS said.

Ortega donated stem cells through the more common method of having his blood drawn out, filtered and returned. He said he did experience pain from the week of treatment before the donation itself.

During that phase, Ortega said he thought about how the patient receiving his stem cells had probably been through chemotherapy, surgery and other grueling cancer treatments.

“What got me through it was thinking about how the person receiving my marrow has been going through a lot worse for a lot longer,” he said.

Despite the pain, Ortega said helping to save someone else’s life made it the best week of his life.

“I would do it again,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.