Lajes Airmen donate bone marrow, save lives

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Erica Horner
  • 65th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Being stationed in the middle of the Atlantic hasn't stopped two Airmen from saving lives in the United States.

Senior Airman Justin Palmer, 65th Operations Support Squadron, and Tech. Sgt. Adam Wurtz, 729th Air Mobility Squadron, were recently sent to the U.S. to donate bone marrow to save the lives of two cancer patients.

Both Airmen had their mouths swabbed to test for compatability; Palmer was attending technical school at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, in 2007, and Wurtz was deployed to Southwest Asia in 2004.

During a blood drive while in technical school, Palmer, who said he wasn't one for giving blood, walked over to the bone marrow table which was right outside the Red Cross.

"The lady running the table kind of talked me into it," he said. "She said that even if I volunteered to do it, the likelihood of being contacted was rare."

Wurtz had a different scenario for how he became a donor.

"There was a bone marrow registry drive at my deployed location," he said. "In order to get your steak during the steak-burn, you had to pass right by the registry table, so I sat down and filled out the paperwork."

Their DNAs were kept on record for a possible donor match.

In February, both Airmen were contacted by the Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program with possible matches, and both were very surprised.

"I didn't think that I would ever be a match," Palmer said. "I was a 97 to 98 percent match for the gentleman I was donating to. I didn't know who he was; I was only told that he was a 44-year-old male with acute lymphoblastic leukemia."

After eight years, Wurtz was also astonished.

"After doing the registry, I never thought about it," he said. "I guess I was surprised that I was a match, but I am happy I could help."

Both Airmen were flown to the U.S. to perform two different procedures for donating their bone marrow.

Palmer underwent a surgical procedure, which placed him under general anesthesia while a doctor used needles to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of his pelvic bone.

Wurtz performed a peripheral blood stem cell donation, which is most common. Blood stem cells were collected directly from his blood.

No regrets

After speaking to a program representative and conducting his own research, Palmer agreed to go ahead with the procedure. Once various consent forms were signed and a multitude of tests were performed here at Lajes, including a full physical and chest X-rays, Palmer was sent to George Town University Hospital in Washington, D.C., where they specialize in bone marrow donations.

Within hours of landing, Palmer already had two appointments set up.

"I met with the bone marrow doctor and he went more in depth about my procedure. They will be making two incisions into my lower back hip area then making multiple little holes in my hip to pull out the bone marrow, one on each side of my hips."

It's been three weeks since the surgery and Palmer is still sore and stiff.

"Was I hesitant? Yes. Very. It was the worst pain I had ever felt, but I don't regret a second of it and if I could do it again, I would," he said.

Pretty simple process
Wurtz also had to perform a series of tests by the National Marrow Donor Program before he was able to donate.

"The donation center called Friday, Feb. 24, and told me I needed to be in Washington, D.C., by the 28th for initial testing," he said.

It was then Wurtz had to rely on his squadron to assist him in getting on a plane quick enough to help save a life.

"That Saturday, Lt. Col. Loren Graham, Master Sgt. Billie Clark, Master Sgt. Charles Hawley, and Staff Sgt. Alvin Taisague from the 65th Force Support Squadron Military Personnel Section, gave up their day to get me off the island by Sunday night. I made it to D.C. on Monday to do all the blood work in enough time to ensure a donation the following week."

According to Wurtz, the donation process was pretty simple.

"I went in to the clinic and received a shot then was released for the day. The shot was meant to stimulate my stem-cell production. This process repeated itself for four days. On the fifth day, I was hooked up to a machine that took blood from one arm, extracted the stem cells and then placed the used blood back into my other arm."

Glad to help
Although the donors may never meet the patients whose lives they may have saved, both say they were very glad to have gone through the process of donating.

Two hundred and twenty-seven Lajes Field members were entered into the bone marrow registry December 2011.

DoD members generally donate to DoD members, as well as retirees, civilians and their dependents.