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Early stem cell donations are 'like calculus'

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Not many teenagers are willing to get up before sunrise, but this day was something special.

Eighteen-year-old Jonah Amundsen and his mother, Melissa, were to spend it at a donation location, so Jonah could give his peripheral blood stem cells to a recipient he had matched.

"When you think about what's at stake — somebody's life — having to get up at 4 a.m. doesn't seem like a big deal," said Melissa Amundsen.

"It's like calculus," Jonah said. "We'd have study sessions at 5:30 a.m."

Jonah, a regular blood donor, became a match for someone in need of a stem cell (or bone marrow) transplant within four months of registering online to donate at Be The Match. Some people never become a match, some do after years of being on the list. Jonah's dad, Eric Amundsen, registered 12 years ago. "I've never been a match," he said.

"I got the swab kit in the mail," Jonah said. "It took five minutes. I did the online registry and it took 20 minutes and that was all until I got the call."

That call was to inform Jonah he was a potential match for someone in need of a PBSC/marrow transplant. "It's the same experience on the recipient's part. It's a difference in how they harvest," Melissa said.

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On the call, Jonah confirmed his medical history, then took a blood test to see if he was the best match out of a pool of candidates for a specific recipient. After four weeks of waiting, he underwent more medical tests: about 14 vials of blood drawn, an echocardiogram, and a standard physical.

As donation day approached, Jonah had to have filgrastim injections five days in a row. But he's serious about wanting to help people through donations — for personal reasons.

The Post-Bulletin reports that Mariah, Jonah's sister, was diagnosed in 2011 with a form of Hodgkin's lymphoma, a blood disease. A large mass was pressing on her trachea and heart.

"She may need bone marrow if it were to come back," Melissa said. "We don't want to anticipate that happening. We don't even know if they (Jonah and Mariah) would be a match. A lot of people sit on that list without ever finding a match."

The donation process presents some discomfort and difficulty for the donor.

"I'm going through a bit of pain with the shot right now," Jonah said. "I'm just going to be tired for a couple of days. It hasn't gotten in the way of my day-to-day life."

Common side effects of the shots are headaches, bone aches and muscle aches.

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He's taken the shot after a speech meet, before a band concert and after a Math League event. Jonah is busy. In addition to his extracurriculars, his class load includes honors band, multivariable calculus, advanced placement economics, AP chemistry, AP statistics, AP language and AP Latin IV at John Marshall High School.

Even with a demanding schedule, doing the PBSC donation has been easy for him to fit in.

"It's not a difficult, time-consuming, laborious process. You get a physical and you're ready to go," Jonah said. "It didn't even cross my mind to say no to donating."

On the day Jonah donated, Melissa said, "He was hooked up to the apheresis machine for more than eight hours, but they reached or nearly reached their target number of cells."

Jonah's blood was removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that collected only the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood was returned to him through a needle in his other arm.

"He's pretty darn sore now, but bouncing back quickly," Melissa said. "He was able to go to the bowling alley with youth group when he got home tonight — no bowling, just watching and chatting, but he can't feel too awful if he did that."

Saving more lives through marrow and PBSC donations isn't a complicated puzzle to solve.

"We need more young, diverse and committed donors," said Julie Slipka, a community engagement representative at Be The Match. "Patients are most likely to match someone of their own race or ethnicity. Every three minutes someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer. Seventy percent don't have a match within their own family."

This is an AP Exchange Feature by Melissa McNallan for the Post-Bulletin.