PHILADELPHIA - Early last week, in a span of two days, two members of the University of Pennsylvania football team, junior tight end Robert Gawlas and senior defensive back J.P. Grant, each underwent successful operations to donate their bone marrow and help extend the lives of two people.
At Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia, Gawlas donated his bone marrow through a process known as a Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation, and a day later, at the same hospital, Grant went through the same procedure to help another patient in need.
"This was a once in a lifetime opportunity," Grant said. "Not many people get a chance to make such a big impact. You have a chance to be like Superman - to save someone's life - to do something you usually only see in movies or comic books. You have the opportunity to be someone's Superman."
It was a long process for both student-athletes.
Both Gawlas and Grant became donors through the "Be the Match" program. The annual screening project for the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) registry, in which Penn Football has participated each of the last four years, aims to recruit new donors to the registry. The initiative was started by Villanova Head Football Coach Andy Talley, who has dedicated more than 15 years to raising awareness about the need for marrow donors and increasing the likelihood that all patients receive the life-saving transplant they need. In addition to Penn, more than 25 college football programs participated in the program this year.
It was sheer coincidence that the two Penn teammates donated just a day apart. Grant received the initial phone call that he was a potential donor in March of 2010, while Gawlas was contacted in February of 2011.
"Once I got the call, I knew I had to do it," said Grant, who's cousin received a bone marrow donation for luekemia as a sophomore at Brown University. "When we signed up for that registry, we made a promise to help someone if they needed it."
After the initial call, the student-athletes each went through a physical examination and some preliminary testing to make sure that a donation would be safe for themselves and their potential recipient. Shortly thereafter, they were both notified that they were the primary donor for their respective recipients.
Grant was told to be ready for his procedure in the Fall of 2010, but it was pushed back several times, including a date in the middle of March that would have caused him to miss some of Penn's spring practices.
"Again, this was an opportunity to help save a life," Grant said. "Spring ball didn't really factor into it. Spring ball could wait. This person needed help."
But the procedure was rescheduled once again. Finally, as the most recent donor date approached, the patient was healthy enough to receive the donation and Grant was able to donate. It happened to be just 24 hours after Gawlas was in the same hospital for the same procedure.
There is a misconception that bone marrow donation is a painful process for the donor. This is hardly the case, though after any medical operation, there can be some side effects and discomfort. There are two donation options. There is an outpatient surgical option where marrow is extracted from the pelvic bones, but both Gawlas and Grant opted for the non-surgical, PBSC donation.
Leading up to the procedure, the donor receives a shot of a drug called filgrastim once a day for the five days prior to the PBSC donation. The drug increases the number of blood-forming cells in your bloodstream, which are taken for the donation.
The drug can also cause some side effects as both student-athletes felt to varying degrees. "There might have been a little discomfort," Gawlas said. "I had a sore back and some headaches, but no matter what the side effects were, it was worth it."
Meanwhile, Grant faced more adverse side effects and reported to be in some distinct pain during the night following his first shot. He had trouble sleeping due to soreness and bone pain, but had the same reaction as his teammate.
"It wasn't unbearable," Grant said. "And I was going to feel better, while that patient is probably feeling a lot worse and might not be able to get better. I never had any doubt that it was the right decision."
The procedure itself involves removing the donor's blood through a needle in one arm and passing it through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells. Once those cells are collected, the remaining blood is returned through the other arm.
"And I'm not a big needles guy," Gawlas admitted. "But no matter what, I just wanted to do whatever it took."
Gawlas said he was there for a little more than five hours, while Grant was out of the hospital in about four hours. Gawlas kept his mind off the needles with television, movies and the company of his mom, Cathy. Grant took the same approach; he took a nap, watched a movie, and talked to the nurses to pass the time, which he said "flew by."
Both Grant and Gawlas said the procedure itself was pain free. Grant insisted he felt better after the procedure than he did when he entered the hospital that morning. Neither had to alter their day-to-day lives afterward. The only real stipulation from their doctors was to avoid excercise for two weeks.
The anonymity between the donor and the recipient is highly protected. The student-athletes themselves were only told the gender and age of their recipients. U.S. law and the federal contract with the National Marrow Donor Program® keeps donor and patient information confidential.
"It was just a great opportunity to be able to help someone," Gawlas said. "Even if I didn't know them. Because I would want somebody to do this if it were my family."
About the NMDP
The NMDP facilitates unrelated marrow and cord blood transplants as a single point of access for a long-standing collaborative network of national and international leading medical facilities in marrow and cord blood transplantation. The NMDP connects patients, doctors, donors and researchers to the resources they need to help more people live longer and healthier lives. For more information, please call 1(800)-MARROW-2 or visit www.marrow.org.