School, nonprofit team up to register blood disease donors

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published June 20, 2017

 Michelle Habedank, a kindergarten teacher at Cheyenne Elementary, finishes swabbing.

Michelle Habedank, a kindergarten teacher at Cheyenne Elementary, finishes swabbing.

Photo by Donna Agusti


MACOMB TOWNSHIP — It’s as simple as a cheek swab.

On June 6, Cheyenne Elementary School, of Chippewa Valley Schools, partnered with international nonprofit organization DKMS to host a bone marrow registration drive to catalog potential lifesaving donors.

A reported 70 individuals were registered during the drive, which lasted five hours.

Kelly Gianotti, a third-grade teacher at the school, helped bring the first drive of its kind to Cheyenne after experiencing firsthand the whirlwind of emotions that comes from essentially saving another person’s life.

In 2013, Gianotti was in her local gym when she saw a flyer about a local high school student who needed a donor. She was so intrigued in the prospect of helping someone else that she registered almost immediately.

The process was easy, she said. She registered by swabbing her cheek with a Q-tip-like device, which entered her into a national database of potential donors. Whenever a patient is diagnosed with a blood disease but whose body rejects treatment, the bone marrow database may be the intermediary between life and death.

It’s a timed process, Gianotti explained, as patients receiving bone marrow must first go through chemotherapy.

The actual donation portion of the marrow takes place in one of two ways.

One way is through the peripheral blood stem cell, which essentially takes blood out of one arm, a machine extracts the stem cells, and blood is inserted back into the other arm to regenerate the healthy marrow in the body. It has about a 75 percent success rate.

The other method involves extracting marrow from the hip bone, which is a longer procedure that requires general anesthesia and will lead to more physical soreness. That method is usually suggested for patients under 3 years old.

About one year after swabbing her cheek, Gianotti was found to be a match for a woman in her early 60’s from Boston. After completing blood work and getting a physical, Gianotti was able to donate by giving stem cells via her arms.

“It cured her blood disease that she had, so it saved her life and gave her extra years,” Gianotti said.

Amanda Schamper, recruitment coordinator for DKMS, said there are 7.4 million donors in the DKMS database. The organization, which was founded about 25 years ago, has offices in the United States, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and more.

Schamper said that 170,000 Americans are diagnosed with blood cancer every year, with nearly 14,000 of those people requiring bone marrow or stem cell transplants. Less than half can’t get the transplant, though, because there aren’t enough donors. Only four in 10 individuals find a match.

A donor could realistically alter the effects of blood cancer and approximately 70 other different types of diseases.

Only about 2 percent of the U.S. population is part of the registry — a number that has stayed stagnant, though awareness is increasing. A lot of it has to do with ethnicity, she said, as the same ancestries tend to find better matches. For example, Caucasians tend to find more matches because there are more Caucasians on the registry. It’s admittedly not very diverse.

In order to be a donor, DKMS first looks at eligibility requirements — such as if a person is healthy, and if he or she understands the donation process.

“As you can imagine, it would be devastating for a patient and family if someone backs out at the last minute,” Schamper said. “That actually does happen.”

Once the 30-second cheek swab is complete, a person is added in the database and stays there until the age of 61. People between 18 and 55 years old are eligible to register.

Success rates are then acknowledged on personal levels. The cutoff of 61 years is due to the health and safety of the donor, as mutations occur in DNA and pose a greater risk of complications afterward. Also, the safety and urgency of the patient is essential.

To summarize, donors offer healthy stem cells to patients whose stem cells are abnormal in the bone marrow and cease to function. It affects the immune system, along with white and red blood cells.

Like Gianotti, Schamper has her own personal story. While pregnant with her third child, a boy, and working as a registered nurse in Illinois, Schamper was diagnosed with leukemia.

Her sister’s blood wasn’t a match, which wasn’t a big surprise as only 30 percent of patients can find familial matches. She was given blood from a donor, which saved her life and inspired her own mission to help others.

“My donor saved my life,” she said. “I’m very lucky they were able to find one.”

Gianotti said she would donate again in a heartbeat. Whether or not Cheyenne will hold another drive next year is unknown, but the fact that 70 people were added to a database in one evening gives her encouragement.

“To me, it’s just important because it’s a very easy procedure and an easy process,” Gianotti said. “People always have something on their bucket (list), like, ‘I want to save a life’ or ‘Do something for someone else.’ This is a simple way to do that.

“It’s a rewarding experience, and I talk to (the Boston patient’s) family and they’re so appreciative of it. I always say to treat people like you want to be treated.”

To learn how to become a donor, visit