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Avoid the mobs, order your swabs: Bone marrow drive goes virtual

Samra Haseeb | Staff Writer

In a time when so much feels out of our control, looking into opportunities of what can be done⁠—as opposed to all that cannot⁠—has become more important than ever.

Courtesy of Olivia Haddox

Washington University’s Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp) fraternity chapter had planned to launch advertising for a bone marrow drive on campus following Spring Break, where students could register on the spot with a simple 30-second cheek swab. In light of the outbreak of COVID-19, circumstances have since changed drastically. Yet SigEp’s philanthropy efforts persist.

The fraternity has now transitioned the project⁠—running from April 4 to April 30—to a virtual format, where interested donors can register through the fraternity’s page on the website for DKMS, the world’s largest bone marrow donor center.

An international nonprofit that strives to add as many qualified individuals as possible to the pool of bone marrow donors, DKMS works closely with groups such as SigEp to help them execute their own registration drives.

“What we typically do is try to train all of the volunteers involved and whoever’s hosting the drive to really kind of run the event on their own; they’re designed to be completely student run,” said Olivia Haddox, a DKMS college donor recruitment coordinator.

If anything, SigEp saw the loss of an in-person drive as all the more reason to continue in another form. Junior Henry Roseman, who serves as chaplain within the fraternity, has been deeply involved with bone marrow drives over the years. “It’s a project where several of the brothers,” including Roseman himself, “have personal connections.”

“Just because we’re socially distant and going through a really hard time ourselves right now doesn’t mean that there is less need,” Roseman said. “There are just as many cancer patients today as there were two months ago, and this is a never-ending need—it’s not dependent on some of the cyclic things we’re going through.”

To break down the logistics, the virtual registration process looks a bit like this: Participants go onto the SigEp page on the DKMS site, hit “Sign me up,” enter some general information as well as their ancestral background, as patients are much more likely to match with a donor of their same heritage, and they’re set.

DKMS will then mail a cheek swabbing kit with a prepaid envelope right to participants house’s. Once returned to them, they’ll be added to the Be The Match Registry, the official registry of the United States operated by the National Marrow Donor Program.

SigEp’s goal for their bone marrow drive is set at 200 registrants; about 1% of registered donors end up being a match for a cancer patient in need. Meeting this goal number will help at least two patients’ lives.

The virtual process makes it easy to sign up from the comfort of one’s socially distant lifestyle at home. And luckily for Wash. U. students, college-aged individuals fall into the category of prime potential donors.

Haddox shared that registering college students is the organization’s “bread and butter.”

“To put it in really simple terms, when you’re giving someone a bone marrow transplant, you are giving them a new immune system,” she said. “And if we can start them off with someone really young and healthy, it’s going to give them the best chance possible at fighting that cancer.”

The organization accepts donors ranging from age 18 up to age 55, but often experts’ most desired donor is an individual under 30 years old.

Becoming a donor for anything, whether it be a kidney, one’s blood or bone marrow, can seem like a daunting decision. But being in a position of good health, where we can regrow or live without what others so desperately need, gives us an opportunity to help in a very meaningful way.

“Fighting cancer takes a village,” Roseman emphasized. “Whether it’s our hair or our stem cells—our bone marrow—these are things that we can give, and it may hurt a little bit when we first give, but we can really, really help someone who’s going through a really hard time.”

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