Local takes giving down to the bone (marrow)

Date Published: 
Nov. 2, 2017

Coastal Point • Tyler Valliant: Christian Heneghan donated bone marrow to a 17-year-old girl with leukemia. He registered at a Ultimate Frisbee tournament, not even really thinking about it. Now he’s helped another person who really needed it.Coastal Point • Tyler Valliant: Christian Heneghan donated bone marrow to a 17-year-old girl with leukemia. He registered at a Ultimate Frisbee tournament, not even really thinking about it. Now he’s helped another person who really needed it.It may seem dismissive to call donating bone marrow to a stranger a random act of kindness. But that’s exactly how Christian Heneghan looks at it.

Heneghan, 38, took the initial “swab test” to determine his eligibility to be a donor at an Ultimate Frisbee tournament in Poolesville, Md., about six years ago. The testing was part of an outreach effort by Be the Match, which is operated by the National Marrow Donor Program.

He looks back on that day, and what he describes as a “random thing” — he didn’t know he’d have the opportunity to enter the donor program that day, he said — he just wanted to play some Frisbee with some friends.

One year ago, that “random” act led to Heneghan’s admission to a Washington, D.C., hospital as a bone marrow donor. Earlier this month, it led to his receipt of a very special letter.

It all started at the Frisbee tournament, with a simple test. It was, Heneghan said, “non-invasive — just a cotton swab on the inside of your cheek.” And with that simple act, “Now you’re on the registry,” he said.

In the ensuing years, Heneghan said, he got three phone calls that he was a potential match for someone who needed a bone marrow transplant. One potential transplant patient, an 84-year-old man, died before Heneghan had the chance to donate. The second time, he didn’t end up being an ideal match.

But the third time, as they say, was the charm. Heneghan was successfully matched with a 17-year-old girl with leukemia. The lead-up to the actual transplant involves an initial call, once a potential donor is identified, that basically asks “You’re on the registry — do you still want to donate? You came up as a potential match,” Heneghan said.

“If you say yes, you go through a whole rigmarole — ‘Have you been out of the country?’ etc.” he said. Then an appointment is scheduled at a nearby lab, which receives a donor test kit directly from the registry.

Next, what Heneghan referred to as a “pretty strenuous physical exam” is scheduled. In Henerghan’s case, the exam was at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

“They want to make sure there are no potential hiccups,” he said.

When all of that checked out for Heneghan, a date was set for his bone marrow to be drawn — also at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

There are two ways to donate bone marrow. One is a non-surgical procedure, which involves the injection of medication that increases the number of blood-forming cells in the bloodstream of the donor. Then blood is removed through a needle in one arm, passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells and returned through a needle in the other arm.

A more involved type of bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure that takes place in a hospital operating room. Doctors use needles to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of the donor’s pelvic bone. Donors receive anesthesia and feel no pain during the donation.

“I just said, ‘What do you want me to do?’” Heneghan said of the two procedure types. The needle-in-the-back method, which he said is “more invasive, but preferred,” was chosen.

In preparation for the donation, Heneghan went to the Blood Bank when it made its stop at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Bethany Beach and donated blood “for me.” On donation day, he said, “they kind of drug you up and stick a big ol’ needle in your back. They took out the maximum they could take out for my weight,” he said.

After the surgery, Heneghan said, “There was not a lot of pain — I healed up pretty good — but there was some,” he acknowledged, including a “decent-sized headache.” The biggest issue was a serious drop in his blood pressure, which was remedied after he pushed “a lot of fluids” into his body. He spent the night after the donation procedure in the hospital.

All of the expenses associated with the donation of Heneghan’s bone marrow were taken care of by the donor registry — with the exception of missed work time.

So after he took it easy for a couple days following the surgery, Heneghan’s life returned to normal; which for him is running his business, the Drifting Grounds coffee shop in Bethany Beach, where he is owner and chief barista.

Although he said he had been somewhat open to contact with the recipient of his bone marrow, he didn’t think about it much after the surgery was over. In addition to her gender, age and the reason she needed the transplant, he knew that she was to receive his donated bone marrow later in the same day that he donated it.

Early in October, just about a year after the bone marrow donation, Heneghan said, “Randomly, I got a call.” It was a representative of the donor registry, telling him they had a letter from his recipient, and asking if he would like it.

He said yes.

The “letter” is actually a card. On the front, the words “One in a Million” are printed. They’re on the inside, too, but they are virtually covered with a note that starts “Dear Donor” and continues to say, “I would like to say a massive thank-you for what you have done.”

She writes that she was first diagnosed with leukemia on her second birthday, relapsed when she was 6 and again at 16. At that point, she said, “The decision was made that I would need a bone marrow transplant.”

“Thanks to you, I have been given a second chance at life. I will be forever grateful for your selflessness and kindness.

“Since receiving my transplant, I have gone on to pass my driving test and have just been accepted into college to study business.

“I’m now looking forward to living my life to the full,” she continued. “I hope that the procedure and the process was straightforward and not too painful for you!”

She said that she and her family “would like to thank you from the bottom of our hearts that you took the time to sign up to become a donor.”

“I hope that one day I will be able to meet you and thank you in person,” she said, adding that Oct. 6 was her one-year “transplant birthday.”

“I look forward to celebrating my 18th birthday — all thanks to you!” she concluded. The note is signed “Love, Recipient.”

“It’s a very cool letter,” Heneghan said. “It definitely brightened my day,” he said, adding that he thinks that he would be open to meeting her. “I’m happy” that she contacted him, he said. “I probably will contact her.”

When friends tell Heneghan that he saved a life by donating his bone marrow, he shrugs and says “maybe.”

“It truly was random. I was at a Frisbee tournament, doing the things I love” when he had the opportunity to be swabbed for testing. “I did it; I didn’t think anything about it,” he said, especially that it could be years before he would be able to follow through and actually donate his bone marrow to someone whose life literally depended on it.

That, he said, was the factor that pushed him toward donating. That, and the fact that, in preparation for receiving the donated bone marrow, recipients undergo what amounts to intensive chemotherapy that strips their body of all its ability to fight infection — a very dangerous and scary time for them and their families.

“I figured, if they’re willing to put themselves through that, and it’s literally the last chance they have, well, I can do this.”

“I think anyone in this world would do it, if they had the chance,” Heneghan said.

He added that he is also considering holding either a bone marrow registry event or some kind of fundraiser for the donor registry organization at the coffee shop.

For more information on bone marrow donation, go to www.bethematch.org.