Perfect Match: Donation Helps Save Life
Cameron Beck, then a student athletic trainer for the Nebraska men’s basketball team, was taping ankles before a January home game in 2013-14, the first season for the Huskers in Pinnacle Bank Arena, and that remarkable, unexpected run to the NCAA Tournament.
Turns out, that season – and that day, in particular – years later created more magic for Beck.
As he helped prepare the Huskers to play that day, Beck heard players talking about having their cheeks swabbed in the arena lobby as part of the Be the Match program, where volunteers can join the National Bone Marrow Registry and potentially become a bone marrow donor. The Nebraska basketball program first began participation that year to show support for Avery Harriman, the son of then-assistant coach Chris Harriman, who was battling leukemia.
In turn, Beck showed his support by having his cheek swabbed, too.
Today, some person – Beck doesn’t know who – has beaten cancer and is leading a healthy life because of his voluntary cheek swab, and eventual match and bone marrow donation.
Now in medical school at The University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Texas, Beck will return to Lincoln on Saturday, where he’ll be recognized as a successful bone marrow match and donor from that inaugural year of Nebraska’s participation in the Be the Match program.
This marks the sixth straight season Nebraska has continued its participation during a home men’s basketball game – the Huskers host Ohio State at 11 a.m. – in conjunction with the NABC and American Cancer Society’s Suits and Sneakers week.
Beck, a 2014 University of Nebraska undergraduate, had returned to his native Texas and was working on his master’s degree when in January of 2016 – two years after his swab – he received an email saying he was possibly a match for a patient of a certain age with a certain disease. If interested, he should respond and have further tests.
He called the Be the Match program, which asked him questions about his medical history. Beck had his blood drawn to collect DNA to see if he indeed was a good match for the patient. Physicians told Beck to expect to wait up to 6 weeks before hearing back about a possible match.
Four days later, Beck received a call.
“They said, ‘Sir, we think you’re the best match, would you like to go through with the donation?” said Beck, pictured above with his wife, Brooke.
This, by the way, all happened 8 months after Beck's father first faced a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer.
“In that moment, I was thinking to myself that if my dad had needed somebody to donate bone marrow to him,” Beck said, “if a physician walked into the room and said, ‘Hey, guess what? We’ve got someone for you who’s the best match and they’re going to donate,’ I just couldn’t imagine the overwhelming feeling in that moment, just such gratitude.”
Beck's decision became a no-brainer.
On March 22, 2016, he began the process to donate bone marrow.
“It’s not the common thinking of what everybody thinks of a bone marrow transplant – stick you in a bone and pull out bone marrow,” Beck said.
Rather, this was a peripheral blood stem cell collection. For five days prior to the day he would donate, a nurse came to his home or work, wherever was most convenient, and gave him two shots daily that would help stimulate bone marrow production.
On the fifth day, Beck went to Carter Blood Care Center in Dallas, where doctors did a dialysis on his blood to filter out cells they needed for the donation. He had an IV in each arm –one to take the blood, the other to return it after it cycled through a machine.
The process lasted 5 hours.
“You just kind of sit there and watch NETFLIX all day,” he said.
He’d do it again, if needed.
“Everyone’s big fear is, ‘Oh, it’s going to hurt,’ and I can understand that, and I can sympathize with that 100 percent,” Beck said. “I won’t say I didn’t have any pain, but I just think the thought of, ‘OK, I can handle a week and a half of temporary aches and pains in order to save someone’s life.’ Putting it into that perspective made it seem like it was nothing.”
Doctors, nurses and others involved in the program made Beck’s entire experience positive.
“Everybody from start to finish, from the first time they called me to the time it was over, was accommodating, caring,” Beck said, “and understanding that you’re not getting paid for this. You’re simply volunteering. You can tell their gratitude.”
The recipient was anonymous, and remains so. Beck, with permission, has reached out to the patient, with no response.
“You know, some people are just very private about their lives, or for some people it may not be the right time. That’s totally OK,” Beck said. “I think it would be awesome (to know), but at the end of the day, I didn’t do it for that.”
The only updates Beck has received have been from the Be the Match program, which reported after one year the recipient of Beck’s bone marrow was completely healthy, living a normal life with normal checkups.
During the first year, Beck’s name came off the registry, in the event that particular patient would need another transplant. After that year, Beck’s name went back on the list – and he almost immediately received a call, saying he was yet another match.
The odds for even one match are 1-in-430.
“To match a second time that fast is, like, beyond rare,” Beck said. “I started to cry a little bit, thinking of the magnitude of the situation and how awesome that was.”
He began the process again – it took the full 6 weeks this time before he learned he was a certain match – but a week before the donation, Beck learned the patient had elected to try a new version of a treatment and backed out of the transplant.
“I think it’s a slim chance I get another call,” Beck said, “but if they call, I’ll be more than willing to do it.”
Beck’s advice to anyone who might be considering a cheek swab?
“You have an opportunity to potentially save somebody’s life and not have any idea about it until you get swabbed,” he said. “For me, personally, I grew up in Texas, but coming to school at Nebraska, you see people there who are willing to support each other. You just see that more outwardly, that encouragement, the niceness of people there.”
Beck talked to the Harriman family recently and couldn’t believe that Avery has now been cancer-free for four years, and he watched in amazement a social media video of Avery riding his bike down the street.
“Holy cow, that’s awesome,” Beck said. “Just absolutely incredible.”
As for Beck’s father, who faced slim odds of survival?
He’s been in remission for one year.
“It’s crazy,” Beck said. “It really is.”
More magic, indeed.
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.