MD Class of 2020
In the spring of his first year at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine (GCSOM), medical student Scott Schoenborn was walking past a “Be the Match” table in the school lobby and decided to stop. “It was some paperwork and a cheek swab that would be used to determine a potential match for bone marrow donation. It took just a few minutes and I forgot about it soon after,” he said.
Eighteen months later that casual decision to stop had a huge impact on someone a continent away.
“In the fall of 2018 – the first semester of my third year – I was notified that I was a potential match. Could I have some blood drawn to confirm?” Scott said. As a medical student and a future emergency physician, Scott is dedicated to saving lives so, of course, he agreed. The blood draw verified he was a match for a 51-year-old man in Spain who was suffering from a rare blood cancer, acute myeloid leukemia (AML). If the transplant went according to plan, the patient’s faulty immune system would be suppressed and replaced with Scott’s own, which lived in his bone marrow. “The patient will have my immune system and interestingly potentially even my allergies,” he said. “I am allergic to cats, so I hope he doesn’t have one!”
The actual donation had to be perfectly timed with the barrage of chemotherapy the Spanish patient would receive to suppress his immune system. At the same time, Scott had to prepare by receiving two injections daily of Neupogen to boost his stem cell production. The date was set but then had to be postponed because the patient became ill. Scott was a bit startled to see that the replacement date coincided with some longstanding plans to visit New Orleans with his girlfriend. “She is a physician assistant, so she was able to give me the injections on our vacation,” he said.
Dec. 4 was the collection date. Scott traveled to Pittsburgh to have his bone marrow harvested. The procedure took five and one-half hours, during which time Scott was encouraged to move as little as possible. “I had needles in both arms. Blood was drawn from one arm. It went into a machine that filtered and collected the cells needed, then the blood was returned through the needle in my other arm. The equipment is very sensitive, so I had to stay as still as possible throughout the draw,” he said.
It fascinated Scott to learn that right outside his door, a person waited to whisk the donation away on a plane bound for Spain. “I was told my bone marrow was successfully transplanted in Spain within 24 hours of my donation,” he said.
Between the injections he received before the procedure and then the collection itself, Scott said he felt “very run down” for about a week after his donation. Now, however, he’s back to full strength and says the one week of fatigue and aches didn’t interfere with his rigorous third-year rotations at all.
Unfortunately, the rules of donation forbid Scott from knowing for one year who his recipient is and how he fared after the transplant. He is encouraged, however, with the success rate for the procedure, which can be as high as 80 percent in patients without recurrence for two years. As a future doctor, he said he also gained some valuable insight. “It was interesting to me to see the entire procedure you had to follow – all the paperwork, confirmatory blood draws, the physical exam, injection schedule and then the collection itself. I feel very lucky to have actually matched with a patient in need. Through this process, I’ve learned it’s not uncommon for those who sign up to never match. I won’t know for some time how the patient responded to the transplant, but hopefully when I do he will be cured and living a happy, healthy life.”