Personal experiences inspire Winona State bone marrow registry drive

Allison Mueller

Development Assistant Tanya Berzinski and her father on her wedding day. Berzinski’s father’s need for a bone marrow transplant in 1997 was a major motivator in bringing a bone marrow registry drive to Winona State. (Contributed Photo)
Development Assistant Tanya Berzinski and her father on her wedding day. Berzinski’s father’s need for a bone marrow transplant in 1997 was a major motivator in bringing a bone marrow registry drive to Winona State. (Contributed Photo)

Sara Tiradossi/Winonan

For patients diagnosed with a blood cancer, sometimes a bone marrow transplant is the only life-saving treatment.

Winona State University’s Director of Development Robbie Christiano said the university has partnered up with Be The Match registry to host a bone marrow registry drive on campus to help bring those in need those life-saving treatments with donors.

Be The Match connects patients with a donor match and provides them and their families one-on-one support, education, and guidance before, during and after the transplant.

“There are different national registries, but Be The Match is the most popular registry for potential marrow donors that a lot of people turn to,” Christiano said. “Their goal is to match people with blood cancer who don’t have a potential match.”

Christiano said Be The Match operates for people with diseases like sickle cell anemia, lymphoma and leukemia. One out of 540 people who register to Be The Match will end up being matched, therefore the chances of being selected are not very high.

“It is very difficult to find donors,” Christiano said. “A large percentage of people don’t have a matching marrow donor in their family, so they have to refer to these kinds of organizations in order to find a bone match.”

Christiano said being on the registry is a truly selfless act. He said knowing even though it may be painful or uncomfortable, you have the opportunity to save someone’s life.

The drive will take place Oct. 20 through Oct. 22 in East Hall of Kryzsko Commons, and people will be able to either sign up at the drive or online.

“It would be great to get a hundred people or something sign up at the drive,” Christiano said. “There’s not many chances in your life that you get to say something like that. It is pretty special.”

Development Assistant Tanya Berzinski collaborated with Christiano to start the bone marrow drive in order to raise awareness of the program among the college community.

Berzinski said this drive is especially personal for her.

“My dad had a bone marrow transplant in 1997, and he was 38 years old when he was diagnosed with leukemia,” Berzinski said. “He was lucky because his sister was a match so he didn’t have to seek out this way. I was fourteen at that time. The recovery process was a lengthy one, but now, 18 years later, he is healthy and doing great. I couldn’t be more thankful.”

Christiano said the real spark behind a drive at Winona State came when he was reading a press release by Winona State’s communications office about recent faculty member and donor Jen Jonsgaard.

“Having that connection and talking with her about the feelings she had, rekindled the fire to start a bone marrow drive here,” Christiano said.

Foundation Scholarship Coordinator Jonsgaard registered for bone marrow donation in 2006 and donated during the summer of 2015.

“I worked with Be the Match, an organization whose job is to be the advocate for the person who is donating,” Jonsgaard said. “They really did take care of me and made sure I was okay every step of the way.”

Jonsgaard said all she knows about the other person is that she has donated to a 44-year-old female from Australia.

“Years ago, I had the chance to take a swab test, and I actually forgot I even did that until I received the letter in the mail last year saying I could be a possible match for someone,” Jonsgaard said. “So I looked at it as giving blood, and I could do it if I could help somebody out.”

Jonsgaard said after the process there is definitely a painful recovery period.

“The procedure itself wasn’t painful because I was under anesthesia, but there were a couple weeks that I felt uncomfortable and weak,” Jonsgaard said. “The whole time though I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that I wasn’t doing the right thing.”

Berzinski said the donor has to be free of certain medical conditions, just to ensure the safety of the patient and also the safety of the donor. The donor also has to be between the ages of 18 and 44.

“I have been on the registry for a couple years, but I haven’t been matched yet,” Berzinski said.

Joining the registry is one thing, Berzinski said, but being willing to donate is another. She said if they find a match, it is crucial the process happens quickly.

“You have to be ready and willing to do that at any moment,” Berzinski said. “It is a really big commitment but you can save a life at the same time so it’s pretty amazing.”

Christiano registered for bone marrow donation in 2007 and was able to donate in 2011.

“Not until five years later after I registered, I received an overnight package in the mail mentioning that there’s a possibility I might be a match,” Christiano said. “Then you have to go through additional testing and make sure you’re in a healthy state. When they tell you that you are a possible match, that is when it gets scary. You realize that it’s really happening.”

Christiano said there are two different ways of donating. One is called peripheral blood stem cell donation, and the other one is the actual marrow donation, a shorter but more painful process.

“The procedure just really varies on the patient and what the doctors are recommending,” Christiano said. “I went through the peripheral blood steam cell donation. It was an uncomfortable and rather long process that took eight hours, and I couldn’t move during the whole time.”

Berzinski said the drive is a positive event that she hopes will be a good turnout for Winona State. She said the more people sign up, the higher the chances to find bone marrow donors.

“Having seen my dad going through the bone marrow transplant caused by leukemia, it’s a huge thing to see as a patient,” Tanya said.

Berzinski said it is amazing to her this medical procedure saved her father’s life, and Winona State could do that for someone else.

“It is sad to think of people who end up dying because there isn’t a match for them and in the scheme of life, undergoing this process is so easy compared to what the other person is going through,” Berzinski said. “You really have the chance to save a life by helping others, and I think that is amazing. I think it’s important for people to realize the real impact that donating has, to really know that it truly helps people.”

Christiano said donors have to be dedicated to go through with the surgery, because it is one thing to sign a piece of paper and another to actually go through the eight hour surgery.

“You can back out any time during the process, but you don’t want to give families false hopes and take that away because you changed your mind,” Christiano said. “There is really a dedication piece on the front hand of this commitment.”

Jonsgaard has also been involved in the organization and planning of Winona State’s bone marrow drive with Christiano and Berzinski.

“The donation was a really good but long experience. From the time I was contacted till the time I made the donation it took about ten months,” Jonsgaard said.

Jonsgaard said even during the hardest stages, she would go through the procedure again. She taught her children this is something she could do for someone else and they understand that.

“It was never a choice for me, because if I was in the reverse role, I would really hope somebody would donate to save my life,” Jonsgaard said.

Christiano, Berzinski and Jonsgaard said they hope many students will register during the Bone Marrow Drive at Winona State and understand the generous and fulfilling act that this donation entails.

“It is really an emotional experience, and your parents are there and they are proud of you doing something like this,” Christiano said. “In the end you have that feeling that you did something good.”