Yokota AB's 374th Medical Support Squadron: Being a rare match

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Natalie Doan
U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Natalie Doan

Yokota AB's 374th Medical Support Squadron: Being a rare match

by Senior Airman Nikko Foster & Airman 1st Class Natalie Doan
374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- They didn't contact me directly.

I received a call from my sister in early January, who told me I had been selected as a bone marrow transplant candidate. It was completely unexpected. I remember thinking, "Wow, I was picked."

Two years ago, when I was leaving class at my military tech school in Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, a nonprofit organization called "Be The Match" hosted a bone marrow registration drive to help people with diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma, or cancer. A coordinator asked me if I wanted to sign up. Without much thought, I said, "Sure, why not?"

The coordinator took a swab of my cheek, had me fill out a few papers, and even gave me candy as a token of appreciation. They mentioned that being selected as a match for someone in need of a bone marrow transplant was rare, so I didn't dwell on it much. I simply thought, "If it happens, it happens."

I’d put my sister’s phone number down in case they couldn't reach me when I filled out the application. So, when they tried to call me directly, they got ahold of her instead. To be honest, it wasn't that I had forgotten about signing up, but it had just been such a long time that I didn't expect anything to come of it.

Now I had just a month to prepare because it did, in-fact, happen for me.

I visited the doctor for a physical and blood tests to ensure I was healthy enough for the donation and booked a flight back to San Antonio.

Because the organization suggested someone watch over me should any rare complications arise, I reached out to my work colleagues to see if anyone was interested. I chose Anthony, a coworker who hadn't been back to the States in a while, giving him a chance to see his family after the procedure.

Together, we flew to San Antonio in early February.

Upon arrival, we checked into our hotel and rested, preparing for the five-day process ahead.

For four days, I had to go to the clinic to receive injections of a drug called filgrastim, which increases the number of blood-forming cells in the bloodstream — the same cells found in bone marrow. This turned out to be the most painful part of the donation process.

Thankfully, after receiving the injections, Anthony and I had the rest of the day to explore San Antonio and enjoy some much-missed American food.

On the fifth and final day, I received two more injections, and a nurse prepared me for the donation process. I was about to undergo a peripheral blood stem cell donation, which is a nonsurgical procedure.

In this PBSC donation, blood is removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that collects only the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood is then returned through a needle in the other arm, replenishing the donor's body. While a PBSC donation can take up to eight hours, it took four hours for me.

As the machine filtered my blood, Anthony and I passed the time by streaming some TV shows while a nurse kindly brought us breakfast tacos. It was just the three of us — a nurse, Anthony, and me — in a large, circular room with sunlight gently filtering through the window shades, creating a surprisingly cozy atmosphere.

Although I don't know much about the patient who eventually received my bone marrow transplant, that doesn't matter to me. If they needed a second or third donation, I would do it again without hesitation. The procedure was a small price to pay for the chance to give someone else an opportunity to enjoy their life, even if they don't have much of it left.

Being identified as a biological match for a bone marrow donation is rare, and I'm immensely grateful that I could be that rare match to save someone's life.

Photo caption:

Senior Airman Anthony Tabor, left, and Senior Airman Nikko Foster, 374th Medical Support Squadron biomedical equipment technicians, pose for a photo at Yokota Air Base, Japan, August 3, 2023. Tabor accompanied Foster to San Antonio for a bone marrow donation in February to support Foster in the event of any rare complications.

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