A woman dying of a rare form of blood cancer has a chance at life because of what happened in January after a letter arrived at a West Linn home, addressed to a someone who no longer lived there.

It is a journey full of flukes, long odds and what-ifs, one that began four years ago at Oregon State University when Natalie Maestretti, then a student, happened to be walking through the Memorial Union Quad, the heart of the campus. She noticed people talking with students.

She stopped and heard these people asking students if they’d be potential bone marrow and blood donors. She decided she would. She signed up. Someone swabbed the inside of her mouth to gather her cells, and she was on her way in two minutes.

She graduated, and her parents later sold the family home in West Linn. Now 24, Maestretti had moved to Portland to work as recruiter for a health care company when the letter, addressed to her, arrived at her old family home. The new homeowner wasn’t sure what to do with it. She could toss it out, but contacted Maestretti’s parents to make sure she got it. When she opened it, Maestretti found a letter and sheet of instructions that made her remember that stop on the Oregon State Quad.

The letter said Maestretti was a perfect match for a woman in her 30s who was dying. Was she still interested in donating her blood cells to save this woman’s life?

“Of course,” she said. “It was surreal. It’s crazy to think how interconnected we are in this world.”

A registry of 11 million donors

Each year, agency recruiters visit college campuses to educate and ask young people to register with DKMS, said Koren Karlovic, a Portland-based recruiter whose territory is college campuses west of the Mississippi River. Donors are eligible to be on the list at 18. And since donors stay on the list until they are 61, she said, college students are critical as they remain potential candidates for decades.

“Last year was tough for us,” she said. “All the college campuses were closed because of COVID-19. We are hoping to get back as soon as they reopen.”

“There are more than 75 diseases where bone marrow or stem cell transplants are necessary to save the patient,” she said.

A patient’s doctor, she said, first tries standard medical procedures, chemotherapy and radiation. If that doesn’t work, a stem cell or bone marrow transplant is the only option. A doctor first looks within the patient’s family, specifically, a sibling with the same genetic coding.

“About 25% of the time they find a match,” she said. “When they don’t, they have to look in the international pool of donors and they come to us from around the world.”

The donor’s cells must be a match with the patient’s immune system, or the new cells will be rejected, she said. A computer system analyzes all 11 million potential donors, looking for protein markers in the donor that match, or closely match, markers in the patient.

“If the patient receives an outside foreign element, the body’s immune system will reject it,” she said. “The match must be as close a match as possible for the body to accept it so healthy cells can form and take over.”

The registry, when contacted, begins looking through all donors, seeking the closest possible match.

“It truly is a needle in a haystack,” she said. “There is less than a 4% chance a donor will ever be contacted.”

Natalie Maestretti was a match.

‘It was so easy’

Maestretti underwent an extensive physical to make sure she was healthy while DKMS officials waited to hear from the patient’s doctor, who was working to get his patient, battling acute myeloid leukemia, in remission long enough to receive the new cells.

In late February — about a month after the letter arrived at her former family home in West Linn — Maestretti went to the hospital for a procedure called apheresis. IV lines were attached to both arms. One line extracted blood and sent it to a machine to separate the red blood cells, and the other line returned it to her body.

“It was so easy,” she said. “It took almost nine hours. I had a choice to read or watch TV. I watched the whole first season of ‘The Amazing Race.’”

When she was done, her cells were frozen and flown overnight to the hospital where the patient received them the next day.

Maestretti knows only that the woman who received her cells is 32 years old and lives somewhere in the United States. Without those cells, the woman would die. The patient’s doctor will know by June if the cells were accepted by the patient’s body.

In the United States, a donor and a patient by law are not allowed to learn anything about each other for a year. After that, if both agree, DKMS officials provide each of them with contact information.

“I’d love to meet her,” said Maestretti. “I was able to be this person’s second shot at life. It changed me. It’s been one of those things that puts life into perspective. I feel very grateful.”

Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.

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