WKU student hosts greek week bone marrow drive

Catherine Havel

There are 10 million people in the national bone marrow registry. She has registered 4,000, and just needs one. But so far has found zero.

However, 10 million non-matches does not stop WKU sophomore Samantha “Sam” Kimura.

The now 20-year-old Kimura was told she needed a bone barrow transplant at age 17, and four months later hosted her first bone marrow drive. Over the past three years, Kimura has held six drives, in three different cities, and raised over $40,000.

Kimura will be hosting the second annual Greek Week bone marrow drive, this Monday through Wednesday in Preston, and hopes to register WKU’s 1,000th person into the registry. Last year WKU registered 729 people, which stood as the largest bone marrow drive for Delete Blood Cancer that semester.

Kimura’s motivation behind her efforts derives from a diagnosis she received in April 2010 that would change her life forever.

Kimura lived the life of a typical 16 year old.

“I was on the varsity lacrosse team, very active and very involved in school,” Kimura said. “I was a normal junior in high school.”

Doctors at Kosair Children’s Hospital, in Louisville, diagnosed Kimura with aplastic anemia.

“I was lying in a hospital bed when they delivered me the news,” Kimura said. “I just closed my eyes and breathed and tried to understand what was happening.”

Aplastic anemia is an auto-immune disorder in which bone marrow fails to make enough blood cells, according to WKU biology professor Nancy Rice.

“Bone marrow is basically a composite of immature cells that, given proper signals, mature into all the different cells of the blood and immune system,” Rice said. “You feel chronically fatigued and aren’t going to function optimally.”

Kimura said she requires at least 10 hours of sleep each night, which is different than the average college student who can function on six.

“I don’t have as much endurance,” Kimura said. “My hands shake 24 hours a day.”

Kimura takes 25 pills each day, around the same time, to keep her immune system consistent.

“My immune system is weaker than the average person,” Kimura said. “I don’t have to live in a bubble, but I have to make sure I steer clear of bacteria.”

Kimura said, unlike her friends, she cannot participate in any physical contact, intramural sports.

Shortly after her diagnosis, Kimura posted this Facebook status:

“Well life is definitely going to change, but I’m still incredibly lucky and I’m looking forward to the way it will strengthen my relationship with God and my family. Stay strong!”

Recognizing a need for a more advanced bone marrow unit, Kimura and her family uprooted from their Louisville home and relocated to Cincinnati Children’s hospital for treatment.

“For 13 days, eight hours a day, I received horse serum, blood transfusions and platelets through a port in my chest,” Kimura said. “The doctors also gave me shots of white blood cells in my legs.”

Once Kimura returned back to her Louisville home, she and her family began devising plans to host their first bone marrow drive.

In August 2010, four months after diagnosis, Kimura ran her first bone marrow drive at her church, and registered about 800 people into the national bone marrow registry.

Since her first drive, Kimura has held six drives in three different cities.

WKU sophomore Jake Greenwell joined the registry last year but had no intentions of being contacted as a match.

“I had heard a fact that less than one percent that do sign up ever get a call,” Greenwell said.

Greenwell said one of his friends, who helped Kimura run the drive, encouraged him to sign up.

Greenwell was contacted as a match May 2012 but did not end up donating until January 2013. He explained that when he received the phone call, the thought of refusing to donate never crossed his mind.

“It’s between you having discomfort for a few weeks or saving someone’s life,” Greenwell said about the donation process.

Seventy to 80 percent of bone marrow donations are given through plasma donations, similar to giving blood. Twenty percent of the time, donations are given through an outpatient procedure that puts the donor under the general anesthesia so they don’t feel a thing, according to Delete Blood Cancer.

Greenwell gave through a blood donation. He received injections every day, one week to prior to donating, which increased the number of stem cells in his body.

“Having extra stem cells in my body gave me back pain and fatigue,” Greenwell said. “It felt like the flu but without the stomach weakness.”

Greenwell said his experience has led him to volunteer during the second annual drive next week and recruit his fellow fraternity brothers to join the registry.

Also among the 13 matches was sophomore Kat Pring.

Pring was recently contacted as a match and is planning on donating within the next couple of months.

“It’s not like blood where they say if you donate you save three lives,” Pring said. “When you donate bone marrow you’re directly saving someone’s life. This is actually someone’s life in your hands.”

Pring said the registration process took less than five minutes, and was very well spent.

When working drives, Kimura said she feels energized and excited when getting people registered, and that is the thing she feels most passionate about in her life.

“Anybody can save a life,” Kimura said. “That’s what I love about drives — the mystery of sitting across a person who could be a match one, five or 25 years down the road.”

She shyly admitted she gets nervous talking to people, but that her love for the cause masks any timidity.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever find a match, that’s very tough to say,” Kimura said. “There are 10 million people in the registry and I haven’t found one yet.”

Kimura said her interest in helping out people who are sick has led her to pursue a degree in communications disorders. She desires a career where she will continue to constantly help those around her.

“I gained a new found liking for children after going through everything that I didn’t have before,” Kimura said, chuckling. “I started to gear my interests towards people and relationships and helping them overcome adversity.”

The theme of overcoming adversity is one that is familiar to Kimura.

“Will my life span be normal?” she said. “For me, death is more of a pressing matter. The biggest worry is that I’ll relapse and become sick again and have to have that match. And if I don’t have that match, well…”