One August day in 2009, Kevin Oldenburg of Kingston was milling around at the Dutchess County Fair when he was beckoned into a tent and encouraged to sign up to become a bone marrow donor. Two cotton-tip swabs in his mouth later, he walked out of the tent and hadn’t thought twice about it, until he got a phone call in 2013.
“When the phone call comes in, it says you are a match to a specific bone marrow patient that says they need the bone marrow, or they will die,” said Oldenburg. “What could I do? When that phone call comes, you are just going to do it. There was no other choice in my mind.”
The cancer patient matching Oldenburg was then-14-year-old Jeremiah Brown-Suarez, of Annville, Pa. He had been in the hospital for 18 months prior with leukemia.
Oldenburg went to Georgetown University Medical Center for a thorough physical, which he described as essential to the donor process, as he felt it safeguards the well-meaning donor. “The doctor doing the physical checks you out so rigorously, because they knew you’re determined to donate that bone marrow,” he said. “Once you have driven this far to do it, and go through the process, they know you’re not going back on it. So they advocate strongly for you, to make sure you’re truly physically fit enough to do it, because I could never have said no.”
Oldenburg, a National Park Service ranger at the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt sites in Hyde Park, said the federal government has a specific policy for seven days of paid time off for bone marrow donors or organ donors.
The procedure for Oldenburg was straightforward. Thirty to 45 minutes under general anesthesia to draw out the life-saving bone marrow, drilling about 15 holes through each hip with a single needle. Oldenburg was fed dinner and sent home by the end of the day, and took a few days of being stiff and sore to recover. Brown-Suarez received the marrow through a blood transfusion.
Meanwhile, the recovery experience for Brown-Suarez was altogether different. Already having received one transfusion that was not working, Oldenburg’s bone marrow was a “super match” — boosting the odds in his favor. In fact, within two to three weeks, he began to see improvement. Today, he said, his prognosis has entirely changed. Brown-Suarez is a student at Messiah College, studying physical therapy and teaching himself ukulele.
“I was always very tired and nauseated,” said Brown-Suarez. “Not feeling like myself. Now I have as much energy as anyone else. Not nauseated. I basically feel great.”
Brown-Suarez’s prognosis is not the only thing that’s changed. His blood type has since changed from O- to Oldenburg’s blood type, A+.
DKMS, the organization dedicated to sourcing donors and matching them to patients, arranged for a special surprise meeting for the two men a few weeks ago on ABC’s The View daytime talk show. Oldenburg said he was under the impression he was on the air to promote DKMS, and talk about his donor experience to raise awareness. Brown-Suarez was waiting behind stage as Oldenburg talked. Brown-Suarez walked out and greeted a very emotional Oldenburg. Brown-Suarez said to the talk show host, “I thought about this moment for a very long time.”
Brown-Suarez, whose 20th birthday was on the day of the production, presented Oldenburg with the “gift of time” — a wristwatch inscribed, “Because of you … ” referencing the quite literal gift of time that he received from Oldenburg’s donation. The show hosts then presented Brown-Suarez with an identical inscribed wristwatch, wiping their eyes with tears. The audience and show hosts all registered as bone marrow donors.
“Overwhelming,” Oldenburg said in an interview with the Kingston Times, after the broadcast. “It was humbling to be able to meet him. To put my arms around [Brown-Suarez] was one of those experiences that is tough to put into words, even this far removed from the show.” Oldenburg said has been getting a tremendous outpouring from people who saw the broadcast.
Brown-Suarez later told the Kingston Times that he had wanted to meet Oldenburg for a long time. Bone marrow donors and recipients must wait one year before they can meet one another, and international donors and recipients must wait two. The DNA-paired fellas waited five years due to Brown-Suarez’s medical schedule.
According to the DMSK, many patients fighting blood cancer and other blood diseases like sickle cell anemia can be saved with a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. Thirty percent of all patients needing transplants find a compatible donor within their family, but the vast majority percent must turn to the national registry. Every year, approximately 14,000 patients need transplants using cells donated from a perfect stranger. Less than half will get them.
“I would tell kids who were diagnosed with it that they just have to keep their heads up,” said Brown-Suarez. “At times, it gets really bad, there is no way around it. As long as they keep a positive outlook and keep their sense of humor, it will help.”
For more information on donating, and to register, visit: dkms.org/en