Western Wisconsin woman travels to Italy to help save stranger's life

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A western Wisconsin woman recently traveled across the world at a moment’s notice to help save the life of a stranger.

Liz deHaven is a logistics coordinator at Be The Match, the national marrow registry, based in Minneapolis.

Be The Match facilitates blood stem cell transplants for people with life-threatening conditions, such as leukemia and lymphoma.

"There’s a 70% chance, if you have a disease like that, you will not have a match in your family,” deHaven explained, “so it’s common for donors and recipients to live very far away from each other."

The cells need to be transported via human couriers from the donor to the recipient within 72 hours of collection.

For a recent pickup in Italy, the scheduled courier suddenly got sick and could no longer make the trip.

"We scrambled to find someone else and couldn’t,” deHaven said. “It was a Sunday around 5 in the afternoon and the pickup was supposed to be the following day, so I offered to go. What if that was the only match in the whole world that could save that person?"

Later that night, deHaven embarked on a long journey to Italy, flying from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., to Frankfurt, Germany and finally to Milan, Italy. She then drove four more hours to the hospital in Verona.

"Clearly, the doctors had waited long past the end of their shift for me to turn up,” deHaven said. “They greeted me with espresso and the little biscotti, so I thought that was really sweet."

She then turned around and flew back to the U.S. to deliver the potentially lifesaving bone marrow to a patient who will probably never know what it took to get them there.

"It’s okay if it all remains a mystery,” deHaven said. "I just feel like I’m exactly where I should be."

Be The Match facilitated 6,426 transplants last year. A patient's likelihood of having a matched, available donor on the Be The Match Registry ranges from 23% to 77%, depending on their ethnic background.

You can join the Be The Match Registry online by clicking here.

To join, people need to meet age and health guidelines and be willing to donate to any patient in need. Registration involves completing a health history form and giving a swab of cheek cells. Be The Match said:

  • More young people of diverse racial and ethnic heritage are needed now to help patients searching for a match. People between the ages of 18 and 32 are most urgently needed since they are requested by transplant doctors about two-thirds of the time. Research shows that these donors provide the greatest chance for transplant success. People between the ages of 45 and 60 who want to join the registry are welcome to do so online with a $100 tax-deductible payment.
  • In 2019, more than 1.4 million new potential donors were added to the Be The Match Registry, of which more than 305,000 were recruited in the U.S.
  • The most important thing registry members can do is stay committed to donating if identified as the best match for a patient. As volunteers, people are never under any legal obligation to donate and their decision is always respected. However, because a late decision not to donate can be life-threatening to a patient, we ask everyone to think seriously about their commitment before deciding to join the Be The Match Registry.

Adults may be asked to donate one of two ways:

  • About 79% of the time, a patient's doctor requests a PBSC donation, a non-surgical, outpatient procedure similar to donating platelets or plasma.
  • About 21% of the time, a patient's doctor requests marrow, a surgical, outpatient procedure that takes place at a hospital. General or regional anesthesia is always used.
  • About one in every 430 U.S. Be The Match Registry members go on to donate to a patient.
  • A third source of cells used in transplants is cord blood, which is collected from the umbilical cord and placenta immediately after a baby is born. It is stored at a public cord blood bank and the cord blood unit is listed on the Be The Match Registry. There is no cost for parents to donate cord blood.