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Decision to come to UB set linebacker on path to save a stranger's life

Matt Otwinowski tucked a cotton swab inside his cheek and wiggled it around a few times. He gathered a DNA sample that would determine whether he would qualify as a match as a bone marrow donor.

Those few minutes in 2017 became an afterthought for Otwinowski, who now is a junior linebacker on the University at Buffalo football team.

His name, he figured, simply would be kept in a database of more than 14 million people who qualified as potential donors. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, the likelihood of finding a match for a patient ranges from 23 to 77 percent.

“With those statistics, you really don’t think (a match) is going to happen to you,” said Otwinowski, who was 18 when he joined the donor registry.

Two years later, Otwinowski learned he was a match. He will undergo a six-hour stem-cell withdrawal procedure Monday in suburban Washington, D.C., that will provide stem cells to someone who needs a bone marrow transplant. The donation will help a man whom Otwinowski has never met and to whom he has no connection, other than an antigen profile match from a swab sample taken at UB.

“Thinking that that guy probably has a family or people who are really close to him, knowing that this could help him recover and be with those people for a little longer, this means the world to me, to help someone,” Otwinowski said.

A community's support

Otwinowski’s path to becoming a bone marrow donor began a few months before he arrived at UB from LaPorte, Ind., in fall 2016. The Bulls' athletic program already had been affected by at least two cancer diagnoses.

In February 2016, Leah Wightman Hennessey had just been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a form of cancer that starts in the bone marrow and quickly moves into the blood, and can spread to other parts of the body.

Hennessey, 27, is a 2013 UB graduate and a former distance runner for the Bulls, and UB track and field coach Vicki Mitchell organized a bone-marrow donor drive in spring 2016 through Be the Match.

Right around that time, Crystal Oats, the wife of former UB men’s basketball coach Nate Oats, underwent a stem-cell transplant, then received a bone marrow transplant as part of treatment for double-hit lymphoma.

Hennessey's teammates and classmates signed up for the registry, and she received a bone marrow transplant on June 15, 2016, at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. Her donor, though, didn’t come from a pool of UB registrants. A man in his 50s who lived in Brazil signed up to join the bone-marrow registry in 2001. He was an 11th-hour match, as he was approaching the age when he no longer could donate bone marrow or stem cells.

More than 18 months after she received a bone-marrow transplant, Hennessey found out his name was Roberto, and she communicates with him through Facebook messenger and Google Translate.

Hennessey has never met Otwinowski, but when she learned last week that he was preparing to donate stem cells for a transplant, she had to hold back tears.

“I’m really blown away by this, that this could happen,” said Hennessey, who lives in Syracuse and is vice president of marketing and product development for BuildPay. “I know a drive happened in 2017, and that a lot of my former teammates got involved, and that was so meaningful for me. But I had no idea that it was still going at UB.

“UB is a really, really special place. For being such a big school, the community was a lot more tight-knit than I ever experienced anywhere else. We’re sticking up for each other and rallying together to make something amazing happen.”

In a way, Hennessey’s fight continued, well after she graduated from UB.

“I really felt like this touched a lot further than what I ever anticipated,” Hennessey said. “We always say that, for every one person that gives you good wishes, there are 10 more that didn’t say something directly, but felt it. That was made so clear to us when we saw people we didn’t know personally, who stepped up or signed up or donated to the cause, or just got involved.”

Finding a match

The UB football program teamed with Be the Match and the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation to host a bone marrow donor drive last week on campus, and more than 100 potential donors signed up to join the national registry.

Bone marrow donations treat blood cancers such as leukemia or lymphoma, bone marrow diseases or immune system or genetic diseases such as sickle cell disease.

According to Be the Match and the National Marrow Donor Program, roughly 300,000 people a year sign up to be on the bone marrow donor registry. Each person on the registry takes a swab test that supplies Be the Match with an antigen profile. (An antigen is any substance that causes your immune system to produce antibodies, whether it is environmental, bacterial, viral or chemical.)

“If a person needs a bone marrow transplant, they’ve exhausted everything else that medical science has,” said Michael Garbin, a senior community engagement representative with Be the Match of upstate New York. “We need donors to help patients who are looking for a second chance at life, and we try to educate people about why this is important, whether it’s at donor drives or registration events.”

But only about 1 in 420 people who are selected as a match goes on to donate. A donor under age 25 has about a 25 percent chance of becoming a match within two years of an initial registration.

“The younger the donor, the better the outcome for a patient" following a transplant, said Airam da Silva, president of the Icla da Silva Foundation, a New York City-based recruitment center for Be the Match.

“We’ve known for more than 25 years of research that those between 18-44, and even 18-24, that doctors will request those donors, 90 percent of the time. Research has found that the younger the donor, the cells are still young and multiplying quickly, and that patients who receive transplants from donors that are younger will come out of the hospital faster and healthier.”

When Otwinowski attended his first donor drive, he did it at the urging of his football teammates, who organized it as a service project.

“It’s one of those things where you sign up for it and you forget about it, and you don’t really think it’s actually going to happen to you,” Otwinowski said.

Being the match

About six weeks ago, Otwinowski’s phone rang, and he didn’t recognize the number. He let the call go to his voice mail.

When he checked it later in the day, a message from a representative of Be the Match asked him to call back as soon as possible. When he returned the call, he was told that he was a match for a patient in the national registry.

The spur-of-the-moment decision Otwinowski made at the end of this freshman year suddenly had significant ramifications: He could potentially save someone’s life.

Time, however, became of the essence.

“It was really shocking to get that news,” Otwinowski said. “When I called back, it was a really long conversation. A representative told me the whole process and I didn’t realize the donation was going to happen as quick as it would need to.

“April 22. That was five, six weeks out.”

Otwinowski underwent a physical examination last month and additional testing during spring football practices to ensure he was a viable donor. Since Thursday, he has received injections of filgrastim, a medicine that helps produce white blood cells and stem cells in an individual’s blood.

On Monday, Otwinowski will sit for six hours in a clinic in northern Virginia and undergo a procedure called peripheral blood stem cell donation. His blood will be drawn from one arm, cycled through an apheresis machine that removes stem cells from the blood and returns it into his body. (It’s much less invasive than a more widely known procedure, in which bone marrow is extracted from a donor’s pelvic bone.)

“I’ll be awake, and I’ll be fine,” Otwinowski said. “I’m not going to feel anything, but it’s more of the side effects that you’ll feel from the (filgrastim) injections.”

The patient will receive the stem cells through a transplant, which Otwinowski said would take place as soon as 24 hours after his donation.

Otwinowski only knows three things about the person who will receive the stem cells he donates: He is a man in his 60s who has myelofibrosis, which, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, is a rare bone-marrow disorder in which abnormal blood cells and fibers build up in the bone marrow. Over time, the fibrous tissue impairs the bone marrow’s ability to produce normal blood cells, and the bone marrow produces fewer and fewer healthy blood cells.

A Be the Match liaison will continue to communicate with Otwinowski in the months after the transplant, but he will have to wait at least a year until he finds out more about the person who received his stem cells. Be the Match and the World Marrow Donor Association require a window of one year before a patient and a donor can make direct contact, and then only if both agree to share their personal contact information.

Until he decides whether to meet the person whose life he may save, Otwinowski understands the gravity of one quick decision he made two years ago.

“This is an opportunity to really make a difference and help prolong someone’s life,” Otwinowski said.

“Who I am — I have a strong faith, and the way I was raised, I really believe in serving and helping others. I just think it’s a great opportunity to help someone that I don’t even know.”

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