It only took 10 minutes during Harold “Reed” Salmons’ lunch break to sign up and save a man’s life. A Be The Match recruiter performed a quick cheek swab to collect Salmons’ cells and sent them for testing as a potential match for future bone marrow transplant recipients. Salmons hoped that his molecular match was out there somewhere.
“It’s so rare to match that you don’t even think at the time that it could be a possibility six months later to be needed,” said Salmons, 23, as he sat at an outdoor café sipping his breakfast blend coffee and telling his remarkable story.
According to Be the Match, a marrow registry operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, about one in 540 U.S. Be The Match registry members will go on to donate bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells to a patient. Currently, there are 11 million registry members.
“I think a lot more people would do it if they knew about it,” Salmons said. “It’s not a heroic thing; I think it is knowledge that you have to vibe with sentiment, and just know enough about it to go for it.”
A 2014 biology graduate of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., Salmons is working as a research technician in the lab of Beverly Emanuel, PhD, at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He discovered that CHOP was a good career fit during a prior internship with the CHOP Research Institute’s Summer Scholars program.
“It is an honor to work at CHOP,” Salmons said. “I knew I was going to come back before I even donated. I just love the environment here.”
During his senior year in college, Salmons learned about the Be The Match registry, an organization that works to pair patients with bone marrow donors. Currently, Salmons is trying to partner Be The Match with colleges and universities to encourage students to register. He mostly is focused on running drives in the Greater Philadelphia region, and his first drive will be held Nov. 19 at 10 a.m. in Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center.
“I was a college athlete in my final year and was hoping to get some time on the field,” Salmons recalled. “I thought, ‘Why not show that it doesn’t matter about that stuff when someone else is in this much need?’”
Across the country in Everett, Wash., that “someone” was 60-year-old Mark Tose, once a senior manager in Boeing’s commercial airplanes division who had endured five rigorous rounds of chemotherapy in seven months to treat his acute myeloid leukemia. A cancer of the blood, leukemia occurs most often in adults older than 55 years, and it is the most common cancer in children younger than 15 years old, according to the National Cancer Institute. Tose’s survival depended on having a successful bone marrow transplant, and Salmons was his best chance as a compatible donor.
Five days before donating, Salmons came back from West Virginia where was doing work for Habitat for Humanity and began receiving injections of a growth factor drug that would help mobilize his marrow stem cells into his bloodstream rather than in his bones. He felt flu-like side effects, including weakness and bone aches. On his donation day, Jan. 21, 2014, he received his last injection at 5 a.m. and then spent the next five to six hours undergoing leukapheresis, a procedure that collects the part of the blood containing the stem cells and returns the remaining blood to Salmons.
“It was the most powerful thing I will ever do,” Salmons said. “It has been a privilege and a blessing to go through the process.”
It was critical for the bone marrow specimen to arrive in Seattle within 24 hours, in order to be processed and transplanted. Despite weather obstacles, it arrived in time for Tose to have the transplant procedure Jan. 22. It took until Feb. 10 for Tose to regain consciousness, but the transplant had worked. He had a slow recovery and was told that his risk of dying within the first 100 days after the transplant was 20 to 30 percent.
A year later, Salmons received an email while visiting his brother in upstate New York, with the subject line: “How do you thank someone for saving your life?”
The two medical compatriots arranged to meet for the first time at the Bloodworks Center in Seattle, and Salmons and Tose became quick friends who stay in touch regularly. Both have a genuine concern for others, and together they decided to share their Be The Match story to encourage others to register.
“I think a lot of people are scared of the bone marrow process,” Salmons said. “The big thing for me is trying to demystify it and show people how even though you are a college athlete and you are supposed to do well in the classroom and the sports field, you can step out of your own schedule and cycle and do this for someone else.”
Being an integral part of a Be The Match success story has motivated Salmons to attend medical school and become a physician. When his days get tough, he hopes to model Tose’s sense of determination.
“His attitude throughout the whole process was, ‘It’s all good,’” Salmons said. “Other than my parents, I think he’s up there as the most inspirational person in my life because of his attitude.”
November is National Marrow Awareness Month. To read more about how you can join the registry, visit Be The Match here, or come to the drive Nov. 19 from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., at the Abramson Cancer Center, 3400 Civic Center Blvd., Philadelphia, 19104.