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In Need of a Bone Marrow Donor, One Soldier is Fighting for His Life at Home

“I’ve been blessed with the gift of gab, and I think this is what I’m supposed to do with it.” Brought to you by Be The Match.

This content was produced by GOOD, with support from Be the Match

In 2007, things were never better for Mark Jenkins. He met the woman of his dreams and had future visions of retiring from the U.S. Army to settle down and start a family. Jenkins was a full-time soldier and in the best shape of his life—a healthy eater, he ran three miles three times a week—when he went in for a routine physical that would turn out to be anything but.

“My doctor told me that I had a high platelet count,” Jenkins says. At first, he and his doctor didn’t think much of it. “He sent me to meet with an oncologist but said, ‘You’re a young, healthy guy. Let’s just monitor you.’”

He was put on medication, but in 2009, his condition worsened, and he had a mini-stroke. A biopsy revealed devastating news that put his family plans for the future at a standstill: he had developed myelofibrosis, a cancer that causes scarring in the bone marrow and disrupts the normal production of blood cells. Debilitating and life threatening, the disease would only give him five to ten years to live.

Jenkins’ best hope for recovery was a bone marrow transplant, but the procedure would be intense and not without risks. Jenkins was told it would be at least a six-month ordeal and require chemotherapy. He could become sterile, lose his hair, and compromise his immune system. It was a tough decision for Jenkins and his new wife, Darlene, but they knew they had to go for it.

They contacted Be the Match, which pairs bone marrow donors with those in need of transplants and started their search. A month later, they were told that not one of the 9.5 million people in the registry could be a donor for him.

Bone marrow is much more specific than blood type. Jenkins, who has no full-blood sibling, has African, Spanish, and European heritage. Only someone with that exact same makeup has the right proteins—or markers—on his or her body cells for a successful transplant.

“It’s kind of like installing a new operating system into a computer,” Jenkins explains. “The transplant will wipe everything out and start new. Marrow with cells containing the wrong markers will be rejected by my body. You can’t install Windows on an Apple.”

Disheartened, Jenkins thought he could do nothing but sit around and join the 10,000 others who are waiting for a match. But Darlene convinced him otherwise.

“I hated the thought of our life together being cut short,” she says. “I knew that if he came forward with his story, he could recruit new donors—either for him or others who are in need. He’s a great speaker, and has such charisma that people really listen to him.”

Though Jenkins was at first reluctant to be “the poster child,” he eventually agreed with his wife. He held a press conference with the mayor of his home city of Denver, launched a Facebook page and has organized several bone marrow drives.

Though it might sound intimidating, saving a life by donating bone marrow is surprisingly easy and relatively painless. First, request a registration kit from Be the Match, follow the instructions to swab your cheeks, and mail it back. If you are a match, you then undergo a blood test and general physical to make sure you are in good enough health to donate. There are two ways to donate: The first is a nonsurgical procedure that uses a machine to extract your blood and filter out the blood-forming cells to donate. The second uses localized anesthesia so you feel no pain, and a doctor will withdraw liquid marrow from your back. The actual extraction of bone marrow often takes five or six hours of being awake before you go home.

“A lot of people believe that donating will cause adverse health problems or that they’ll have to pay a bunch of money,” Jenkins said. “Your time is really all you need to give.”

Jenkins is also being tested to see if he could be a candidate for umbilical cord blood, which he may be easier to find a suitable match because cord blood does not need to match as closely as bone marrow or peripheral blood. But no matter whether he eventually gets a transplant, he’ll keep talking to as many as people as he can to help raise awareness.

“There’s a reason why this is happening to us,” he says. “I’ve been blessed with the gift of gab, and I think this is what I’m supposed to do with it.”

There is a critical need for volunteer donors. Many patients, especially people of color, can't find a compatible donor among those on the Be The Match registry. A large, ethnically diverse group of prospective donors will give more patients a chance for survival. If you're in good health and between the ages of 18 and 60, click here to learn how you can join the registry of potential donors.

To stay updated with Jenkins' progress, visit his Facebook page here.

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