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Bone marrow donation makes for a memorable senior year

  • Bone marrow donor
    Bone marrow donor
    Anna Pettyjohn '12 donated bone marrow to a person in need.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

Last year, Anna Pettyjohn ‘12 was terrified of needles. She isn’t anymore.

Pettyjohn, who will be graduating on Sunday at William & Mary, spent part of her last semester at the College donating bone marrow to a man she has never met and maybe never will.

The English major joined the bone marrow registry just last year through the Alan Bukzin Memorial Bone Marrow Drive, which is held on campus annually.

“A lot of my sorority sisters were on the steering committee for the bone marrow drive so they kind of peer pressured me into it, but I also felt like it was a good thing to do,” Pettyjohn said. “Both of my parents have both been on it for 15 years, so I went ahead and did it.”

In October of that same year, Pettyjohn had just finished taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) when she turned her phone back on and noticed a missed call from an unfamiliar number. A voicemail message told her that she was a possible match for a person in need.

She called the number, and the person on the other end of the line asked if she was willing to undergo further testing to see if she was a true match.

“I’ve known a few people who’ve been called about being possible matches, but none of them turned out to be actual matches,” said Pettyjohn. “So, it’s kind of a slim chance that it actually happens.”

Though the chances were slight, Pettyjohn agreed to further testing, which included having her blood drawn and tested multiple times. Though months passed, she didn’t hear anything. Finally, in January, she received the call; she was a definite match.

“I was very shocked and kind of overwhelmed, but I couldn’t say no,” she said. “I felt very compelled to do it. I was like, this is happening to me for a reason. I think this would be a good experience.”

She was informed that the person she would be helping was a 42-year-old man in an international location who was living with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Pettyjohn also learned that she was the man’s only hope.

“Usually, there are family members who are able to donate their bone marrow to the patient, but in this case, none of his family matched,” she said. “I was the only match.”

After saying yes to donating her bone marrow, Pettyjohn underwent additional medical tests: X-rays, an electrocardiogram (EKG) and more blood work.

 “There was one week when I had to do blood work three days in a row,” she said. “I also had to store a unit of my blood at the American Red Cross here in Williamsburg so that they could do a transfusion (after the procedure).

“I’m not afraid of needles anymore,” she said, laughing.

Although the process leading to the donation was not easy, Pettyjohn said, the people at the bone marrow registry were very supportive. They set up all of her appointments and paid for everything.

“It was really just a matter of going to do the things and finding time for that,” said Pettyjohn.

Finally, her donation day arrived: March 29. Pettyjohn went to Richmond the night before to get one last round of blood work done. She arrived at Virginia Commonwealth’s Medical Center (MCV) the next morning at 8 a.m., and her surgery began until 11:30 a.m.

The procedure involved sticking two large, hollow needles into the back of Pettyjohn’s pelvic bone. The surgeons removed five pounds of marrow and blood from her, Pettyjohn said. Though the procedure can take up to two hours, for Pettyjohn, it was over in 40 minutes.

“I guess I’m just a really good bone marrow giver,” she joked, adding that it probably actually had to do with her being young and healthy.

After the procedure was over, Pettyjohn said that she felt surprisingly good but sore. She stayed with her parents in her hometown of Lynchburg, Va., for the weekend, where two of her sorority sisters visited.

“That was nice to have people come to visit, and I got a lot of cards and shout-outs and stuff,” said Pettyjohn.

Soon after that weekend, Pettyjohn was back to campus, working on finishing up her final semester. As she recovered from the procedure, Pettyjohn found that she couldn’t do everything that she would have normally been able to do.

 “My friends were going out and going to events and things, and I was just too tired just because I was so weak the first couple of weeks,” she said. “It was a lot of time, but it was well worth it.”

Despite the sacrifices – and the needles – Pettyjohn said that the experience made her senior year special.

“I definitely learned a lot about myself,” she said. “It’s definitely something that I’m very proud of. I never thought that this would happen, and I never thought that I would be able to save someone’s life. That’s just a very satisfying feeling when you can do something to help other people directly.”

Pettyjohn said she also feels like she made a friend in the person she donated to, even though the two can’t contact each other for two years – and only then if both agree.

“I’ve thought about the patient and his family the entire process, and just knowing that I gave him a second chance and them a second chance with him has been great,” she said.

Pettyjohn’s donation has even inspired others to volunteer to do the same.

“The bone marrow drive (at William & Mary) was a few weeks ago, and a lot of my friends said, ‘I’m going to do it now because you did,’” she said.  “I said, ‘If I can do it, then you can do it. I was deathly afraid of needles, and I actually got through it and did really well.’”

Pettyjohn said that she was overwhelmed by all of the support that she received throughout the process. She said that she has gained a greater appreciation for the people in her life and a new-found confidence in herself.

“I think I’m a lot more confident and positive because I feel like I’ve done something memorable, and it makes me excited to live the rest of my life and go out in the real world,” she said.