As a college student at Columbia University in the 1990s, Yung-Mee Park, MD, was walking through campus when she noticed a table with information about someone who was looking for a bone marrow donor. What struck her most vividly was learning about the particular need for registered donors from minority communities. What she didn’t know then is how that one moment would change her life years later.
At the time, people who wanted to register to be bone marrow donors were asked to provide a blood sample. Yung-Mee gladly complied, listed her parents’ phone number on the contact form, and went on her way. She graduated from college, was a practicing family physician, had married and was raising two sons when she was surprised with an opportunity to save a young boy’s life.
In 2011, someone from Be The Match, the national marrow donor program, called her parent’s house to see if Yung-Mee was still interested in potentially being a donor, fifteen years after she joined the registry.
“I was really excited,” remarks Yung-Mee. “Being a physician, I feel like I contribute to the well-being of patients and am there to comfort them, but physicians do that by prescribing medicine or through encouragement. This was an amazing opportunity to give a part of myself to help save a life.”
The donation process
After agreeing to move forward with the donation process, Be The Match requires potential donors to undergo blood tests to ensure they are healthy and a good match for the recipient. When Yung-Mee received a box of vials, she scheduled an appointment with a local phlebotomist at a partnering facility.
Five months later, she received a call back, informing her that there was a 15-year-old boy in need of an immediate transplant.
For five days, Yung-Mee injected herself with a stimulant that helps the body make more of the products needed for a blood stem cell transplant. “I experienced bone pain, but not to the extent where I couldn’t work and see patients,” remembers Yung-Mee. “It was uncomfortable, but not unbearable. It would not stop me from donating again.” (Nowadays, most donors donate blood stem cells and not actual bone marrow.) She was admitted to a Southern California hospital to complete the donation. She had a PICC line inserted in both arms and laid in bed for a couple of hours, sleeping and watching TV during that time. She recovered quickly and returned to work two days later.
After going through the process, Yung-Me says the procedures created only small amounts of discomfort. “The emotional satisfaction I get from having been able to do that is so rewarding,” she said.
Following the one-year anniversary of the transplant, donors and recipients have the option to connect with each other. Yung-Mee and her teenage blood stem cell recipient, Kevin, began emailing and sending Christmas cards to one another.
By the beginning of 2017, Yung-Mee had just completed a battle of her own with breast cancer and had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco, where Kevin and his family live.
“After going through my own life-altering cancer diagnosis, I really wanted to connect with Kevin in person,” she reflected. “My husband and two sons were with me, and I just expected to meet Kevin and his mother, but his father, brother and grandmother also came to enjoy a delicious lunch. His mom did most of the talking and constantly offered me food. At the end of our meeting, Kevin’s grandmother hugged me tightly with a tear in her eye. I realized that three generations were grateful to have Kevin still in their lives. I feel blessed to have been his match.”
‘Like a gold mine’
One of Yung-Mee’s colleagues was searching for a match in 2016 and eventually had a transplant in December 2016. While recovering, he and Yung-Mee worked together to create a national Kaiser Permanente marrow program and began partnering with Will You Marrow Me, Marketing and other groups within the organization. After the transplant, Yung-Mee’s colleague lived an additional seven months before succumbing to complications from his treatment.
The loss of her colleague, her own cancer diagnosis and her experience donating to and meeting Kevin drives Yung-Mee and her work — and gives her a full-scope view — both as a physician and a bone marrow donor advocate.
“Everybody has the ability to save another human being,” she said. “To me, it’s like a gold mine. If we’re all healthier because of our passion to help others, this would be the ultimate way to do that. This is a lifetime project.”
How you can get involved
- Register to become a potential blood stem cell or bone marrow donor at an event or online.
- Please note: Ideal donors are between the ages of 18 and 44 because research shows that cells from younger donors provide the greatest chance for a successful transplant. Those who register remain on the registry until age 61.
- Encourage those who are unable to become part of the registry to donate financially to the cause.
- Host a drive at your local school or community center. Partner with official Be The Match recruitment centers, which provide all needed supplies.
- Share this article with family and friends, to raise awareness and encourage people to register.
For more information about blood stem cell and bone marrow registration, donation and transplants, please visit: kp.org/bethematch