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From his hospital bed at the University of Minnesota on Aug. 8, 2013, 18-year-old Issac Anderson holds a bag of his blood from which stem cells and platelets are extracted for a bone-marrow transplant. Anderson is a 2013 River Falls (Wis.) High School graduate. Submitted photo

Donor match ended up far away

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Issac Anderson wanted to do his part for an acquaintance suffering from a deadly disease. Six months later, he helped someone in desperate need, but not anyone he knew.

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Like scores of local people last February, Anderson, a high school senior then, responded to the Be The Match donor call for Grace Goblirsch, a 2011 RFHS graduate.

Goblirsch was being treated for fast-growing cancer. She needed a bone-marrow transplant.

Anderson was the same age and friends with Goblirsch’s younger sister, Claire. In fact, he and Claire had gone together to prom.

“The donor thing seemed like a good opportunity to try to help, even though we were told the odds were very unlikely of their being a match for Grace or for anyone,” Anderson said. “It would be a longshot.”

Anderson’s mom, Michelle Hansen, said: “I just happened to be home from work that day, and we had seen something in the Journal about the Registry Drive and had talked about it with friends.

“Issac said that he knew the young woman they were doing the benefit for, saying what a nice person she is. Issac and my daughter Elizabeth and I decided to go to St. Bridget’s to be put on the registry.”

Donor samples -- taken by running a long swab inside the cheek -- were taken Feb. 18 at St. Bridget Catholic Church.

Samples are placed in envelopes and sent for analysis with the Be the Match Registry, run by the National Marrow Donor Program.

The program connects patients with life-threatening blood cancers, like leukemia and lymphoma, with their donor match for a life-saving marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant.

In Anderson’ case, longshot odds to match with Goblirsch in River Falls as a bone-marrow donor proved correct.

However, earlier this summer Anderson was called by a Be The Match representative. He was told he was next-in-line to match with someone else.

“They made it seem like it was still unlikely, so I didn’t think about it after that,” Anderson said.

But by mid-July, he got word that the other donor ahead of him had dropped out. Now it was Anderson’s turn -- If he wanted to step up.

“I thought, ‘That’s cool.’” He said. “It’s a big honor to be picked for a match. I wasn’t worried about the procedure. Nobody has ever died from giving bone-marrow stem cells.”

The nonsurgical procedure was set up at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

Anderson first had a physical. Then, for five days, he was given drug injections at River Falls Hospital to boost the number of blood-forming cells in his bloodstream.

The injections left him achy in his joints and lower back.

Then last Thursday, Aug. 8, Anderson went through the all-day procedure at the U of M for having blood removed via a needle in the vein of one arm.

That blood went through a machine that takes out blood-forming stem cells. The remaining blood is returned through a needle in the vein of the other arm.

Anderson said there was no pain. He took no anesthetics.

“I stayed in bed, couldn’t move my arms too much, played phone games, watched TV, ate, drank juice -- you couldn’t take anything that might dehydrate you,” he said.

Anderson said his recovery was fast.

“You’re supposed to be lazy for the rest of the day, so I took it easy,” he said. “I felt a little bit tired, but I’m 18, athletic and I eat healthy, so I was better in no time.”

Friday morning, the day after the bone-marrow transplant procedure, Anderson and a buddy were driving up to Somerset to camp by tent and hang out for the three-day Summer Set Music Fest featuring 30 bands.

Anderson was told only that his bone-marrow transplant will go to a middle-aged man in Ohio with leukemia.

While that’s more abstract than donating to someone he knows, like Grace Goblirsch, Anderson had an encounter before his procedure last week that hit home.

“I was in the waiting room and a guy that was sitting next to me asked what I was in for,” Anderson said. “I told him I was a donor, and he lifted his hat. He was bald, had cancer, and he expressed his gratitude for what I was there to do.

“That made it seem more real -- what I was doing and why for this person far away who I’d never met.”

If the donor recipient survives, Anderson said there’s a chance in a year or so he could meet him.

“I would like that,” he said. “It would put a face on the whole thing for me.”

Hansen also put the matter in perspective, “I think anyone who signed up for the registry and didn’t get that call was disappointed not to be a match for Grace,” she said. “There is such a sense of community in River Falls…everyone was hoping they would have a chance to help.

“It is wonderful, though, that a direct result of the Goblirsches and St. Bridget’s putting this event on, that someone’s father/child/brother is getting a chance at life.”

Hansen says when she tells people what her son has done, they assume there’s painful drilling into the bone.

“This is what we thought the process was when we signed up,” Hansen said. “From what we learned, this is still needed in some cases, but there are many other ways to donate now that people are not aware of that are not as invasive.”

After what she’s learned, Hansen hopes more people will be comfortable enough to get on the bone-marrow registry.

“It is so easy to do, and what an opportunity to help someone and pay if forward,” she said. “We never know if someone we love may have to rely on someone else to make that decision.

Anderson offered the same message: “It’s a simply process,” he said. “I hope anyone who reads this will consider signing up for Be The Match.”

Hansen couldn’t be happier with her son’s example.

“As for Issac, his father and I are so proud of him and the young man he is turning into,” she said. “He really believes in following his convictions and walking the walk. He has such a big heart.”

To learn more about this topic, visit this website at bethematch.org.

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Phil Pfuehler
Phil Pfuehler has been editor of the River Falls Journal since 1991.
(715) 426-1050
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