By Mary O’KEEFE
The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.
- Albert Schweitzer
We hear about the need often – a child or adult is looking for a match for bone marrow. Most listen to the request, empathize with the person in need and move on with their lives. A few listen, empathize and react.
Mike Leum, a La Crescenta resident and reserve deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept., had heard about a young boy with cancer who was looking for a match for a needed bone marrow transplant. He donated.
Leum was not a good match for the young boy, but his donation, along with others who donated, went into the National Bone Marrow Program (NBMP) and Be The Match. Leum went back to his life but then was contacted twice by NBMP as a possible donor.
Each time he was found not to be a “good” candidate, he said. But a third call was “the” call.
Alaine Gregory lives in Indiana and she was his third call. In February 1999, she was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). This type of cancer starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow and invades the blood, according to the American Cancer Society website.
Gregory was given her options: Without a bone marrow transplant she could expect to survive four to 14 years. With a transplant, she could live healthy with a 20-year goal.
“I told them I would pray about it and let them know,” Gregory said. “After [she and her husband Norman] prayed about it, we thought, ‘Yeah we are going for a cure.’”
The doctors first went to Gregory’s sisters to find a match. They found that the sisters were a perfect match – but for each other, not for Gregory. Doctors then went to the NBMP registry and found there were 444 potential matches.
“Which is unusual,” she said. “So we sought out donor number one.”
The donor was a good candidate for the CML but Gregory had another issue that had to be taken into consideration.
“I have MS (multiple sclerosis),” she said. Gregory has MS with exacerbation symptoms, meaning that she will have symptoms that then get better and go back to “almost normal,” she said.
The first donor was not a good candidate for the MS.
“They thought they could find someone better, so they went back to the list and looked at donor number two,” Gregory said.
That donor ended up having issues as well, so they went back to the donor bank for the third time and found Leum’s information.
Gregory’s MS made the process of getting just the right donor longer than usual. During the search for a donor in September 1999, she underwent radiation and chemotherapy.
“They wiped out my immune system,” she said.
Then it was Leum’s turn to help. He went into the hospital and had the bone marrow extracted. The process of bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure completed in a hospital surgical room.
“I was knocked out,” Leum said.
Doctors then used needles to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of the pelvic bone. That donation was not too difficult, Leum said.
Leum’s bone marrow was flown to Indiana for Gregory.
“They did the transfusion. I watched my white count go down to zero,” Gregory said. “I was in isolation. I then watched [the white cell count] start to rise. I was in the hospital for 30 days and off work for seven months.”
But the cancer wasn’t done with Gregory yet. After a year and a half, she still wasn’t in remission.
“They had to go back to Mike and ask him for more stem cells,” she said.
Leum went through a peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) donation when blood is removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood is returned to the donor through the other arm, according to Be the Match.
That donation was not quite as easy as the bone marrow, Leum said. In fact, it was painful.
But the pain that Leum went through those couple of days resulted in Gregory going into remission. And, as an added bonus, her MS improved. The doctors had told her that was a possibility, and she was happy to discover they were right.
For Leum, the pain of the donation was a small price to help Gregory, who had not yet to met or even know her name.
“I had it done on Oct. 28  and by Halloween I was out trick or treating with Nancy [Leum’s wife] and the kids,” he said.
After a transfusion, the patient is told who the donor is and, if both parties agree, their contact information is exchanged. Both Gregory and Leum wanted to meet.
“That was awesome,” Leum said of their first meeting. “I called her children and we were able to surprise her.”
Leum flew to Indiana. Since that first meeting, the two and their families have spoken on the phone on a regular basis and, on occasion, meet in person. The Gregorys were in Montrose this weekend to meet with the Leums.
Prior to needing a bone marrow transplant, Gregory had heard about the program but hadn’t given it much thought. She is a nurse but worked in the field of cardiovascular medicine. She said it was amazing that a total stranger would donate to help another.
“And I told him today that not only did he save my life but my husband is getting older and needs [help],” she said.
She added because of Leum she was able to care for her husband.
Leum wants others to know that being a bone marrow donor takes some time but really can save a life – something that he knows a lot about. Leum is a member of Montrose Search and Rescue and has done hundreds of rescues throughout his career.
“People ask me what my best rescue has been and I say, ‘That’s easy,’” Leum said, pointing to Gregory. “And I didn’t have to do anything. The best rescue is right here.”