During her freshman year on the Heights, Alessandra Maldonado, MCAS ’16, swabbed her cheek for a bone marrow drive on campus. The sample, her genetic makeup, would sit unemployed for three years while Maldonado’s life spun on—classes, clubs, parties: an entire undergraduate experience.
“I thought it was a long shot,” she says. “I never really gave it much thought.”
And it was a long shot. Only 2.5% of Americans on the national bone marrow registry are ever contacted to have their blood drawn in a sort of call back audition. A far slimmer 0.3% of those registered are identified as the ‘best match’ for a patient seeking a donation. Even fewer, 0.2%, actually end up donating.
Even if every Boston College undergraduate were enrolled in the bone marrow registry, odds are that only one student would match and choose to go through with the donation. Though, Maldonado’s donation is a lot more courageous and infinitely more compassionate than a game of numbers can convey.
Maldonado matched with a three-year-old boy afflicted with acute lymphoblastic leukemia: a cancer caused by errors in the DNA of a bone marrow cell.
He was a complete stranger to Maldonado then; even now, two procedures later, he and his family remain unknown. All the nurses revealed to Maldonado were the boy’s age, his gender, his illness, and that he and Maldonado shared a rare genetic connection.
“Me being connected to him in such an incredible way made me feel more obligated to do it,” she says. “If this boy’s going to have a good chance, it’s going to be with me and my consent, and the actions that I commit.”
Part of their compatibility likely has to do with a shared ethnic heritage. The boy is from Spain, where Maldonado’s Peruvian family also has roots.
The registry, she says, desperately needs more minorities. Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans (in that order) have an increasingly difficult time finding matches. People of mixed-race face the worst odds.
The first step, then, must be to register more and more people; a more diverse pool of genes means greater diversity in the patients that can be treated.
A potentially greater challenge, however, lies in encouraging more people in the “best match” category to go through with donating. Unlike donating blood, donating marrow is time-consuming and more invasive. It is a surgery, and requires general anesthesia (nothing that could be conducted from the Walsh Function Room).
But, Maldonado says, the procedure is by no means prohibitively painful. From her experience, it doesn’t derail a person any more than a wisdom tooth extraction, and it’s a similarly routine surgery.
Maldonado underwent her bone marrow surgery during spring break of her senior year—the soonest chance she had to set aside several full days for the operation and recovery.
For Maldonado, the surgery was a success; unfortunately, the donated cells did not stick in the boy’s bones.
Maldonado would donate again; this time, she would give up peripheral stem cells during Senior Week. “The body is really incredible,” says Maldonado. “The stem cells naturally find their way to the bones and start developing healthy cells for [the patient].”
A nurse visited her Mod to deliver five days of injections and on the fifth day, Maldonado underwent what would be the final procedure: six hours attached to a machine that filtered blood from her arm. She celebrated another successful donation that night on the senior Boat Cruise.
Graduation has come and gone, both procedures are shrinking in the rearview mirror and still, Maldonado does not know the fate of her match.
For a time, anxiety about what the boy’s health outcome would be, and whether or not the boy and his family would ever reach out personally, weighed on Maldonado.
Now, after conversations with friends and family and plenty of reflection, Maldonado finds peace, regardless of the outcome. “I know that I’ll be able to live with this action and feel completely happy with what I did,” she says. “It’s something that’s going to be a part of my life forever and something I always felt was the right thing to do.”
Maldonado cites PULSE as the place where she really found footing in her sense of morality. There she learned about building a life of action—one in which you not only reflect on your values, but express them. Donating marrow and doing all that she could to save someone’s life was Maldonado’s opportunity to act with compassion, and not just believe in it.
“If you think you’re a compassionate person, show that compassion,” she says. “If you think you’re a loving person, show that love.”
Mailing a cheek swab into the bone marrow registry or donating blood to the Red Cross may not be poetic or dramatic (one could say it’s mostly sterile and inconvenient). But when you take a moment to see those acts as one person giving of herself to save the life of another, it starts to look a lot more like love.
“We’re challenged to take all this knowledge that we’ve received at BC and to show that in our work and our everyday life,” says Maldonado. “If a great opportunity comes up, don’t hesitate to do something good.”
Visit bethematch.org to join the bone marrow registry online or to find a donor registry drive near you.