Skip to main content
9 minutes reading time (1839 words)

National Donor Day: How To Be the Match With Richa Thakur, MD, and Will Smith

On February 14, Oncology Data Advisor is celebrating National Donor Day and recognizing the contributions of individuals who have given organ and tissue donations for patients in need. In this interview, Fellows Forum member Dr. Richa Thakur has a conversation with Will Smith, a High School History Teacher, who gave an anonymous stem cell donation through Be the Match (the National Marrow Donor Program, NMDP) in 2015.  

Richa Thakur, MD: Hi, I'm Richa Thakur. I'm one of the second-year Hematology/Oncology Fellows at Northwell Health, and I'm also one of the members of the Fellows Forum. Today, we have a really exciting episode for you because February 14th is National Donor Day. Since we're a medical oncology podcast, the type of tissue donor we're going to focus on is bone marrow. To everyone who has been a living donor or a deceased donor, thank you so much for your contributions. You have no idea what this gift means to others, and we really do hope more people will get out there and sign up for Be the Match or another organ donor registry after hearing this.

The guest I have today is William Smith. We've been friends for quite some time. Will, do you want to introduce yourself?

Will Smith: Sure. I am a High School Teacher. This is now my eleventh year that I've been teaching history. Before that, in college, I had signed up for the Be the Match registry. And before that, when we were friends in high school, I was in scouting and earned my Eagle Scout. Actually, donating blood is what first got me into being aware of donating in general.

Dr. Thakur: That's so exciting. I also remember all the blood drives we did in high school, so that's what prompted me too. What was your process like when you signed up for the registry? How did you hear about it?

Mr. Smith: It was my first semester in college, and it might've even been before classes started. I was walking back to my residence hall, and they had a pavilion set up. It didn't cost me anything, and the chances of being asked were pretty low. Ultimately, I may never have been called, and you can always say "no" if you need to when they call. I signed up, and they did a swab. I think it took two minutes to sign up.

Dr. Thakur: That's really interesting. You were actually called too, right? Twice, if I remember correctly.

Mr. Smith: Yes, I was going into my last semester of college, and they called me. I didn't know who it was at first, but then when I talked to them, they said that I was a potential match. I wasn't sure about the timing and how that would all work with school, and I really didn't know what the process was, how in depth it would be, and how long I would be away from classes and all of that. Because it was my last semester, I asked, "Can it wait a few months?" That was in been 2012, and then three years later in 2015, I got another call saying that they had a potential match.

When I talked to the person who called, he said that he was actually surprised that I was still on the list because apparently when you decline, they take you off the list. I guess I seemed willing enough, but the timing was wrong, so they left me on there and called me a few years later. At that point, I'd been teaching for a couple years, and I had time. I said, "You know what? If I can help someone, I can help someone." I went in and did the more detailed testing. I found out that I was actually a match, and that's when I found out that the process really isn't that in depth and it really didn't take a whole lot of time or effort on my part. There was a week or so of preparation, and then a day for the donation, so it really wasn't as much as I was worried it would be. Ultimately, it was pretty easy.

Dr. Thakur: I'm really glad to hear that, especially for you since you did this anonymously to someone you didn't even know. I feel like a big concern a lot of our patients and their families have when they go for this registry is that they just don't want to put someone in so much discomfort, whether it's a family member or stranger. Can you talk about that week and what it was like for you?

Mr. Smith: Yes, and you can speak more to this—the way that they used to do bone marrow donations was actually taking the bone marrow, so that was a more intrusive process. But what they did for me, and I think this is how it's done now, is they gave me steroid shots for about a week or so leading up to it, in order to increase the number of stem cells in my blood. Then on the day of the donation, I went to their center, and they put me in a hotel and everything.

It actually reminded me of donating in high school because one of the first times I donated, I did the platelets, where the blood is pumped out, they cycle it for the platelets, and then they put the blood back in. That was really uncomfortable because the blood coming back in was cold. I was kind of nervous about that, but I was a match for someone, so it's worth it to help. A few hours of being uncomfortable for myself to help someone, that's a fair trade. They hooked me up to the machine, and the blood was going out. And when they pumped it back in, I don't know how, but they insulated the tube and it was not cold, so I was pleasantly surprised about that. There was really very little discomfort during the whole process. I had to sit in a chair for three or four hours, and listened to some music or watched a show or something. Ultimately, all the stem cells were taken out, and they collected what they needed.

I didn't hear anything for almost a year. Then ultimately, since it was anonymous, they gave my information to the recipient, and it's up to them if they wanted to reach out, and he did. They had given me basic information before that. He was a college-age young man from Canada, and he ultimately did reach out and we exchanged a couple of emails. It was nice getting to know him, but at the end of the day, it was about helping. It doesn't matter who gets the donation. I had signed up for the Be the Match registry in the fall of 2010. My dad's father passed away in the spring of 2011 from leukemia, so he was probably already sick at the time. Honestly, I was in college, so I don't know if I was aware of that or not. Again, signing up was really just a service; there was very little discomfort or impact for me, and there was an opportunity to help someone. It's like checking that box to be an organ donor on your driver's license; it costs you nothing, and it can ultimately help someone. If you can help, you should—that's the way that I approach it.

Dr. Thakur: That is such a sweet way to think about it, because you did put in a lot of time, especially with isolating for a week before the donation and the medicine that you had to take before to prepare, as well as the travel. It's really refreshing to hear about someone who did it anonymously for a donor that they didn't even know, because it's such a generous gesture.

The other part about transplant, especially when we're talking about leukemias or lymphomas, is that oftentimes getting a transplant makes a difference between whether or not we can cure their cancer. It is a huge component of the treatment. To see donors like you really making a huge difference is so refreshing, because we often don't get to meet a lot of the donors, the ones who are anonymous. I'm really happy you came on our podcast to give us this perspective. Do you think there's more about your story that other people should know?

Mr. Smith: I actually need to check and see if I'm still on the registry. I honestly don't know. Once you donate, I don't know if you stay on the registry or if you're done. If I'm not on there, I want to sign up again, because there could be someone else out there who needs bone marrow.

Dr. Thakur: That's a good point. I signed up for the registry about the same time as you, and I still haven't been called, so fingers crossed. We'll see what happens.

Mr. Smith: And even if someone doesn't want to sign up—if it sounds like it's too much to donate for bone marrow—even just donating blood is very helpful. I need to get back into doing that. I donated as often as I could throughout college, and then I had some medical issues where I couldn't donate for a little while there. I need to get back into that because it's less time, less effort, and more immediate, and it's still a way that you can help out. I have O-positive blood, so I know that's especially useful to the medical system. Again, if I can help, I probably should get back out there and start donating again.

Dr. Thakur: Thank you so much for your time, Will. We really appreciate having you here.

Mr. Smith: I'm so happy to be here and help out.

About Richa Thakur and Will Smith

Richa Thakur, MD, is a Palliative Care Physician and a second-year Hematology/Oncology Fellow at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell Health. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a bachelor's in chemistry and medical school at Texas A&M. She has completed a residency in Internal Medicine and a fellowship in Palliative Care at Zucker School of Medicine. Dr. Thakur's research interests include improving quality of life in patients diagnosed with hematologic malignancies.

Will Smith is a High School History Teacher, currently in his eleventh year of teaching. He is an Eagle Scout who graduated from Texas State University with a Bachelor of Arts in history with minors in theatre and honors with an undergraduate thesis. In 2015, he was an anonymous stem cell donor through Be the Match.

For More Information

Donate Life America (2023). National Donor Day. Available at: https://donatelife.net/how-you-can-help/national-observances-celebrations/national-donor-day/

National Marrow Donor Program (2023). Be the Match. Available at: https://bethematch.org/

Transcript edited for clarity. Any views expressed above are the speakers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of Oncology Data Advisor. 


Related Posts