Almost by chance, 9 years ago Nick Stenzel signed up for a bone marrow donation program – partly to get a free cookie or t-shirt (he doesn’t quite remember which).
Now he very well may have helped save a complete stranger’s life.
As a college freshman at North Dakota State University, Nick was walking through the Memorial Union when he happened across a booth for the Be The Match Foundation.
“I was just walking through, and they were there,” Nick recalls. “I don’t know if they were giving out a free cookie or t-shirt, but it caught my eye.”
Without hesitating, he signed up for the national bone marrow donation program – and had his mouth swabbed.
“At that point in my life, no one I was close to had been affected by cancer, but I don’t think you have to know somebody who’s gone through cancer to know how awful it is,” Nick explains. “I think it was just the possibility that at some point in time I could help save someone’s life.”
A Life-Changing Phone Call
Years passed, and Nick forgot about the program. Then in late 2019, he got a phone call telling him he was a potential match for a 49-year-old woman in the U.S. with a form of cancer called myelodysplastic syndrome.
“I was kind of awestruck that it was finally happening, after 9 years of hearing nothing,” remarks Nick, now a project manager on Bell’s marketing team. “It would basically be like a big blood donation from me, and that’s nothing compared to what this other person was going through. If that’s all I had to do to potentially save her life, I think it would have been pretty selfish of me to not go through with it.”
Nick was 1 of 10 people potentially matched with the woman. Additional blood tests would help her doctors determine who the best possible match was.
In January, Nick found out he was the one.
“I almost felt honored that I would get to go through with it,” Nick says. “That phone call totally changed my mindset about the foods I ate and how I took care of myself. I started doing everything I could to stay healthy, because whatever I did could also affect this woman.”
Getting Ready to Donate
That phone call also led to additional bloodwork and a physical exam to make sure Nick was healthy enough to give the bone marrow donation. Throughout the entire process, Be The Match paid for all costs associated with Nick’s testing and donation.
In addition to feeling excited about being able to make such a big impact on someone else’s life, Nick also felt a little nervous about everything he would need to go through.
He would be donating through a peripheral blood stem cell donation – 1 of 2 ways of collecting blood-forming cells for bone marrow transplants. It’s a non-surgical procedure Nick describes as being similar to a large plasma donation.
For 5 days leading up to the donation, Nick had to receive 2 injections of Filgrastim – a drug often given to people going through chemotherapy to stimulate white blood cell production. Nick experienced some pain and muscle aches from the drug, but he says it was tolerable, and he knew it was temporary.
“I endured 5 days of pain and discomfort, but that’s nothing compared to what a cancer patient goes through,” notes Nick, whose mom is a breast cancer survivor.
“My mom’s experience made it that much easier to donate,” Nick affirms. “I don’t know if the woman I donated to is a mother, but if someone had something they could have donated to my mom to mitigate her cancer, I know I would have been forever grateful.”
Donation Day Arrives
Nick flew to San Diego, Calif., the afternoon before his donation and checked in to the hospital early the next morning, for his last blood draw and Filgrastim injection. Next, he was hooked up to IVs, so his blood could be removed through an IV in one arm, then pass through a machine that collected the blood-forming cells before the remaining blood was returned through an IV in his other arm.
He was told the process could take up to 8 hours, but Nick was done in a little more than 2, and his soreness from the Filgrastim disappeared almost immediately.
Now, Nick anxiously awaits word about how the recipient of his donation is doing.
In writing her a letter, he talked about how strange it felt that someone he’d never even met had been on his mind almost constantly for the past 3 months. He also wrote about how he took better care of his own health, so he could be healthier for her. And he explained how grateful he was for the opportunity to do this.
Communications initially go through Be The Match, and the recipient might never chose to respond. If she does, she and Nick could eventually decide to meet.
Because Nick openly shared his story, others – like his co-worker Alexandra Floersch – have signed up for the program.
“When Nick humbly shared his decision to donate, tears flooded my eyes,” explains Alexandra, a Bell Bank marketing writer. “Having never been in a position to ‘save a life’ for my career, I saw another perspective thanks to Nick’s selflessness – that there are many ways to impact this world. After he shared, I immediately bolted to my computer and signed up myself. On February 25, 2020, I officially became part of the Be The Match registry. I cannot wait to see what’s in store for my life in the next year (or 50 years), but I hope it includes a bone marrow donation to save the life of someone else.”
“It makes me feel really proud,” Nick comments. “The greatest thing is when I get messages or emails that other people have signed up.”
Nick says he doesn’t feel like a hero, and the title frankly makes him feel a little uncomfortable.
“I didn’t do this for the notoriety,” Nick explains. “It’s one of those things where I was at the right place at the right time. What if I hadn’t walked through the union that day? That was the only time I’d heard of this organization.”
It’s possible Nick will be called on to help this patient again – if the disease returns or if she regresses and doctors think another donation would help – in another 10-15 years.
Without hesitation, Nick says he’d do it again.
How to Help
You can support Be The Match by giving financially or signing up to be a donor by joining the Be The Match registry at https://bethematch.org/.