BYU student donates bone marrow to potentially save stranger's life

BYU nursing student Jane Pearson smiles before donating her bone marrow in late 2023.

BYU nursing student Jane Pearson smiles before donating her bone marrow in late 2023. (Jane Pearson)

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PROVO — Jane Pearson was river rafting in Moab last summer when she got an unexpected phone call.

"Hey, you've been matched with someone, are you still interested?" she remembers the voice asking. The caller was National Marrow Donor Program — formerly Be the Match — and Pearson was definitely interested.

Three years prior, she joined the bone marrow registry at a BYU club meeting by sending in a swab from inside her cheek that would potentially match her with a stranger in need of a lifesaving bone marrow or stem cell transplant.

Finding a viable match is a difficult road for most patients, as 70% of people don't have a fully matched donor in their family. By cultivating a massive catalog of volunteer donors — more than 9 million in the United States, alone — the national program hopes to up patients' odds.

Pearson opted in. This meant 20 to 25 hours of preparation, including multiple blood tests, physical exams, a chest X-ray, paperwork, etc. — all during her final semester as a nursing student at BYU.

Interestingly, BYU students on the bone marrow registry have a higher chance of matching (about one in 50) than the average donor (one in 200). This "BYU factor" can partly be attributed to students' "healthy lifestyles" and a "service-oriented" campus culture, BYU professor Julianne Grose said in an on-campus magazine article published earlier this year.

"At least 46 current or former students have matched with and donated to blood-cancer patients to potentially save their lives," the article says.

There are two types of donations through the national registry. The vast majority of donors are asked to give their stem cells in a fairly simple procedure, comparable to blood plasma donation. Only 5% undergo a more invasive surgical procedure, as Pearson did, to harvest bone marrow, she said.

Pearson was asked to donate her bone marrow to an infant with a rare genetic blood disorder. In late 2023, she flew with her parents to a specialized hospital to undergo the procedure. The National Marrow Donor Program covered travel, accommodations, food and medical expenses for the trip.

The surgery only lasted an hour. Pearson stayed one night in the hospital to recover, and the next day she was back home.

"When I woke up from recovery, I was in quite a bit of pain, right in my lower back," she said. "That lasted for about five days. I walked a little funny and had to be careful sitting down."

Now, six months removed from the surgery, the only lasting marks are two small scars on her lower back.

"It is just a really cool thing, because it didn't take much from me," Pearson said. "I was already healthy. I have bone marrow and my body will give it back to me." It takes only a few weeks for the average person to replenish bone marrow.

Knowing her sacrifice was "potentially saving someone's life" was gratifying, she said. Right now, however, Pearson isn't aware whether the transplant was effective for the other patient.

"I sent the family a letter and, after a year, they can decide if they want to reach out to me," she said. "After two years, if they are wanting to and I am wanting to, we can meet."

Pearson, who is now a nurse at an intensive care unit, said it was a good experience to be "on the patient side of things" just weeks after finishing nursing school.

Pearson has been open on social media about donating bone marrow through the program, though she was initially hesitant to share because she didn't want to seem like she was bragging. Sharing her story, however, she said, has been worthwhile.

"I have this body that Heavenly Father has given me, and I was able to use it for good to help someone else," Pearson said. "I've probably had at least five people tell me they signed up after I told them about my experience."

The National Marrow Donor Program is always looking for new donors. Visit their website for more information.

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Emma Everett Johnson covers Utah as a general news reporter. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University.


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