A Life-Saving Decision

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Sixteen years after registering to be a bone marrow donor, Jonathan Watkins got a chance to help save a woman’s life.

As a young man interested in improving people’s health, Jonathan Watkins chose a career in health care administration. But the Chief Operating Officer for Kaiser Permanente in the Central Valley Area never expected he would personally be involved in helping to save someone’s life.

That changed this fall when Watkins agreed to donate bone marrow to a 36-year-old woman with sickle cell disease. A bone marrow transplant is the only known cure for sickle cell disease, a genetic blood disorder that greatly impacts the African-American community and affects about 100,000 people in the United States. The condition can cause anemia, severe pain, and can lead to serious organ damage.

Watkins recently spoke with Look insideKP Northern California about his decision to donate.

Why did you decide to register as a possible bone marrow donor?

As an undergrad, I attended a compelling presentation about the National Bone Marrow Donor Program. I learned that 3 out of 4 patients who need a bone marrow transplant will depend on a stranger to save their lives, and a patient’s best chance of finding a donor match is with someone who shares the same ethnic background. Right now, more than one-third of African-American patients are unable to find a bone marrow donor match.

I also learned about research and developing treatments using bone marrow transplants to treat sickle cell disease. I was enlightened and inspired. Simply stated, I joined the registry to make a difference by saving a life.

Let’s fast-forward to your becoming a match.

This past summer, I was contacted by the “Be the Match” Registry of the National Marrow Donor Program and advised that I was a potential match for a sickle cell patient in the Washington, D.C. area. They asked if I was still interested in being a donor because joining the registry does not obligate you to be a donor in any given situation.

Over the 16 years that had passed since I registered, I gained a perspective that helped me decide to donate. Last year, my friend Trevor passed away from sickle cell anemia at the age of 48. His death, along with the remarkable recovery of my good friend Mark, aided me in my decision. Mark battled constant illness and surgeries from sickle cell anemia, however, he received a stem cell transplant that changed his life. The tragedy of Trevor not finding a donor and Mark’s return to health because of a donor helped me understand that serving as a donor truly matters.

What was the donation process like?

It’s not as daunting as one might expect, especially considering that a bone marrow transplant can save a life. Initially, I underwent physical exams and psychological screenings to ensure I met the standards to be considered a good donor.

The outpatient surgery to extract my bone marrow was performed on September 14, 2017, at a Bay Area hospital, and it lasted less than an hour. While I was under local anesthesia, liquid bone marrow was extracted from 6 sites along my hip bones. I experienced soreness for about a week, and I resumed my normal daily exercise routine after 2 weeks.

According to the doctors who performed the procedure, bone marrow replaces itself within 4 to 6 weeks, so I should be fully replenished now.

What do you know about the woman who received your bone marrow?

Be the Match keeps donor and patient identity confidential, but I hope to meet her next summer at the annual Be the Match reunion. I was informed that her procedure was a success and that she’s doing fine. I also received a message from her through the program expressing her sincere gratitude and that she was looking forward to meeting me at the reunion.

Final thoughts?

Every year, nearly 15,000 patients in the United States will need a bone marrow transplant to treat illnesses such as leukemia, lymphoma, and sickle cell. However, only about 50 percent of those in need of a transplant will match with an eligible donor. This leaves 7,500 patients without a donor in a country that has 300-plus million residents.

If you are healthy, please join the registry and invite your friends and family to do the same. We can do more than make a difference in a life; we can be the difference that saves a life.

Central Valley Area Communications Manager Jennifer Rosen contributed to this article.

Go to the KP-Be the Match website to learn more about registering as a possible bone marrow donor.

Discussion20 Comments

  1. Latatsha Keeten

    I agree with Sara B. I was also in need of a bone marrow. Unfortunately, I did not find a match, but fortunately have recovered by the grace of the Lord without receiving a transplant. I have taken care of a wide variety of patients who have received solid organ transplants and are so happy for them and those who are not so fortunate. I wish I had the gift to give. Thank you, Jonathan. Your story is so heartwarming. A Hero indeed!!

  2. Charmaine Manglicmot

    This is such a heart-warming story. To see and hear of Kaiser employees being so selfless and showing compassion and giving HOPE to those in dire need of life-saving donors.

    Thank you, Mr. Watkins!!!

  3. As someone who is currently in remission from Leukemia, I am most grateful to you for your generous and kind contribution to save a life. Thank you for making such an impact!

  4. Christine Sanken

    It was wonderful to read this story of your selfless gift. My wife and myself, as well as my brother and sister, are all volunteer couriers of bone marrow and stem cells for NMDP and Be the Match Registry.

  5. WOW — toughing, beautiful story, and thank you for making the world a better place. Not only are you an amazing leader, but you have such a kind heart. God bless.

  6. To give is a blessing within itself. But, to save a life. That is truly a miracle. Well, Mr. Watkins, this is the part of your life that I love to hear about. I always knew you as a young man with your attitude. It would take you very far in life. I AM SO PROUD OF YOU, JONATHAN. Go, Partner.

  7. Thank you for letting God use you to be a Blessing to save his Child. Only selfless people can do it. God Bless you.

  8. Thank you for being on the registry and for saving a life. I have been registered since 1993. I hope to one day be able to donate too.

  9. My grand daughter had a bone marrow transplant 4 years ago and she’s doing great for the kindness of a donor just like you. Thank you for donating and making a difference to save a life.

  10. Thank you, Jonathan. You are a true hero! I am a bone marrow failure survivor, lucky enough to be in “remission” without a transplant so far. I know so many people, in my support group, who need and are waiting for a match. Thank you for being a donor and sharing your story. I hope it will inspire others to step up and register to be a donor.

  11. Such a heartwarming story of selfless giving. I, too, am registered to be a donor and hope that one day I will be a match to help someone.

  12. So inspiring. Thank you for educating us even more so and encouraging us to “be” the difference in this way and many others.

  13. Thank you, Mr. Watkins, for being a hero. Just imagine how a few hours or weeks of discomfort can positively change a person’s life and their loved ones for years!

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