Yale sophomore offers a life-saving donation

Yale sophomore Lexy Adams will give the ultimate gift this holiday season by donating bone marrow to help save the life of a cancer patient.

The 18-year old sophomore, a back on the field hockey team, found out she was an excellent genetic match for the patient last month. She had initially joined the National Marrow Donor Program’s® Be The Match Registry® at a drive organized by the Yale football and women’s ice hockey teams this past spring.

Adams, a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, returned from field hockey practice in early October to find that she had a voice mail, e-mail and Facebook message from Be The Match® notifying her that she was a potential match for the patient, who needs a stem cell transplant to survive. Every year, thousands of patients with life-threatening illnesses require these transplants. For a patient’s body to accept donated stem cells, the patient needs a donor who is a close genetic match.

Seventy percent of these patients do not have a donor in their family, and they depend on the Be The Match® registry to find a match to save their life. The sources of stem cells for transplants like this are peripheral blood stem cells from donors like Adams, marrow extracted from the pelvic bone, or donated umbilical cord blood from newborn babies. When a patient is in need of a transplant, doctors search the available registries to find the best possible match.

After additional blood work in New Haven, Adams got a call while home for Thanksgiving break in late November and was told that she was an excellent match.
Adams had told her Yale field hockey teammates and some friends that she was a potential match after the initial phone call, but it wasn’t until after the blood work that she told her family.

“That’s when I realized this is a pretty big deal and I should probably let them know,” she says with a smile. “My mom wants to be there. My family thinks it’s great and they support it, even if they could not necessarily see themselves doing it. And my friends think it’s really cool to have the potential to save somebody’s life.”

Following the phone call earlier in the fall, Adams had done some research into the marrow donation process and found that there was still just a small chance that she would actually be called to donate. But when she was called again in November after the blood work, she knew that her time had come.

“As soon as I realized I was talking to a different person [at Be The Match®], I knew it was happening,” Adams says. “We had a conference call a couple days later with my mom, and they took me step-by-step through my process and the patient’s process.”

Adams’ part of the process began with the bone marrow donor drive this past spring at Commons. This was the second year in a row that the Yale football and women’s ice hockey teams had joined forces to sign up potential donors. Yale women’s ice hockey player Mandi Schwartz had been diagnosed with leukemia in December of 2008, and she was one of the primary inspirations for the drive.

Schwartz has since received a stem cell transplant from donated umbilical cord blood and is recovering in Seattle. The stem cell transplant process involves using chemotherapy and sometimes radiation that eliminates the patient’s immune system along with the cancer. The donated stem cells then generate a new immune system. Using the best genetic match lowers the risk of potentially fatal conditions such as graft-versus-host disease.

Yale’s bone marrow donor drive was part of the “Get in the Game. Save a Life” program, which was started at Villanova under the guidance of head football coach Andy Talley in cooperation with Be The Match®. Larry Ciotti, an 18-year assistant coach at Yale, is a friend of Talley’s and brought the idea to Tom Williams, Yale’s Joel E. Smilow ‘54 Head Coach of Football.

The Yale football team held its first drive in April of 2009, with help from the women’s ice hockey team because of Schwartz’ diagnosis. Yale set a record with 704 registrants that year, then broke the record by getting 921 registrants this past spring.

In addition to Adams, at least three other people have been identified as life-saving matches for patients in need by the Yale drives.

Two Yale student-athletes — men’s ice hockey player Colin Dueck and football player Mark Kaczor — were the primary people who convinced Adams to participate in the drive.

“I had heard about the procedure [of donating bone marrow], but I had never even considered signing up until my friends talked me into it,” Adams says.

Adams is honest about the primary concern she had before joining the registry — one that she will have to overcome in order to make the donation.

“I am terrified of needles,” she says. “When I signed up, they say that the chances are so small that you’ll be called, I never thought it would be me. The first reaction when I heard that I was a match was pretty much fear. But thinking about it later, it’s a very exciting process.”

Adams and her boyfriend both registered at the drive, swabbing their cheeks to provide DNA samples that were placed in the registry. Ironically, her boyfriend also received the initial notification as a potential match for another patient earlier this year, but has not been contacted since.

For five days leading up to the donation, Adams will be injected with a drug that stimulates her bone marrow cells and pushes them out to the blood stream. Later this month — shortly after she finishes an economics final — she will receive the first injection from an in-home nurse at her dorm room in New Haven.

She will then head home to Lancaster for more injections, and will make the donation at a hospital in Washington, D.C., while accompanied by her mother. Her Yale field hockey teammate, sophomore Mary Beth Barham, will also join her.

“I’m doing the newer form of donation,” Adams says. “They hook me up to a machine, take the blood out of one arm, spin it down [to extract the stem cells], then pump it back into my other arm.”

The procedure, known as peripheral blood stem cell donation, will take six to eight hours. Adams will head home immediately after, and she said she will have a recovery period of about 24 hours.

While Adams is preparing for her part of the donation, the recipient is also undergoing preparation.

“I know their process starts 10 days before the donation,” Adams says. “They put them in isolation and they kill off their immune system. That’s really the point of no return for them.”

While Be The Match’s® guidelines dictate that the recipient remains anonymous right now, Adams will be able to meet the patient in a year if both sides agree to the meeting.
Adams’ commitment to helping save a life is in line with the community service philosophy of the Yale field hockey program as a whole. This past season Adams was part of the Bulldogs’ “Get a Grip” campaign against myotonic dystrophy, a campaign that was organized in support of sophomore goalkeeper Ona McConnell and her battle with that disease. Last season Adams earned Yale’s Senior Award, awarded by the senior class to a freshman team member who reflects positive contribution to the team’s philosophy and whose individual character encourages the future direction and excellence of Yale field hockey.

Adams, a National Field Hockey Coaches Association National Academic Squad honoree, is taking pre-med courses and considering biomedical engineering as her major. She is in Branford College.

As Adams prepares for the procedure, her story serves as a reminder of the importance of making that first step: signing up as a member of the registry.

“I never even considered signing up until my friends talked me into it in the spring, saying ‘How can you let your fear of needles stop you from saving a person’s life, the life of someone who is going through so much worse?’”

— By Sam Rubin, Yale Sports Publicity

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