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Emergency physician donates stem cells to save woman battling MDS blood cancer

Feb 15, 2024 by Gift of Life Donor Story

From the time she was a child, Michelle has always tried to put others first, an outlook that has led to her career as an emergency medicine attending physician. When she was studying at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, that same impulse brought her to a Gift of Life Marrow Registry donor recruitment table during her lunch hour. The drive was held in 2015 by Gift of Life Campus Ambassadors to give future physicians the chance to join the registry. Michelle and most of her friends signed up, both to support the registry and their friends who had organized the drive.

“Going into medical school we take an oath as physicians to help save lives,” said Michelle. “What better way to help than by being a match for someone in critical need? I honestly never thought I would match with anyone, but I have personal connections to the mission, my grandmother passed away from chronic lymphocytic leukemia.”

Six years after completing her swab kit, Michelle was in her senior year of emergency medicine residency when she got a call from Gift of Life, saying she was a match for a woman battling a form of blood cancer called myelodysplastic disorder (MDS). This occurs when some of the blood forming cells found in the marrow are abnormal and produce blood cells that do not function normally and die too soon.  About 30% of patients can progress to acute myeloid leukemia. 

“I was surprised to know I had matched a patient in need, but excited to learn more about the process,” said Michelle. “My next thought was, ‘Oh boy, I hope I can get the days off to go through with the donation.’” 

Michelle first shared the news with her mother, who was both surprised and cautious, wondering what effects the donation might have on Michelle herself. After learning that it is an outpatient process that has been done millions of times, and that somewhere a woman battling cancer was hoping for a stranger who could save her life, Michelle’s family and friends were all supportive.

“Everyone said I was taking being a physician to an ultimate level and were calling me a hero – not just for my everyday work, but as a donor,” said Michelle. “I was blushing and didn’t know how to react at times. I don’t see donating as heroic but as a part of my work that I love.” 

Her concern about being able to take time off was handled by her co-workers, who stepped in to make it possible.

“My co-workers took some of my shifts so I could take time off to donate,” said Michelle. “I was most honored when one of them, whose wife was recently diagnosed with cancer, felt so personally touched that he took my shifts, saying that donating is an honorable thing, and he was happy to help me be able to proceed.”

Michelle and her husband Matt travelled to Boca Raton, Fla., to donate at Gift of Life’s in-house Adelson Collection Center. Gift of Life puts donors up in a beautiful resort on the beach in Delray, and all travel expenses are paid by the organization. 

“The nurses at the collection center took amazing care of me,” said Michelle. “During my donation Matt and I just relaxed, had some snacks, and watched Netflix. I felt fully recovered after about two days and was back to my normal activity.”

Stem cell donor Michelle with her husband Matt on a vacation in Bulgaria. Michelle is not only an emergency medicine physician, she donated blood stem cells to save the life of a woman battling to survive blood cancer.

Michelle and Matt enjoy traveling and recently visited Bulgaria.

“I hope I inspire others to join the registry and donate,” she said. “It was relatively easy and is such a smooth process.  We need donors to make cures possible. My family is originally Eastern European, and though you may think ‘I bet others will match this person’ you can’t assume that. You may be the lifesaver that someone has been waiting for.”

Michelle is an emergency medicine attending physician who graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey and the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. She and her husband Matt live in Apex, N.C. Michelle enjoys traveling, playing with her dog, trying new restaurants and participating in karaoke and trivia nights.