JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. –
National Bone Marrow Awareness Month is observed every November to honor the people who donate their stem cells and bone marrow, which help give patients a second chance at life.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Johnathan Ferguson, 305th Air Mobility Wing quality assurance inspector, is one such individual whose bone marrow donation gave an ill person a second chance at life. Looking back on his decision to donate over a decade ago, Ferguson can see the full impact of his service and enjoy the bond he shares with his recipient.
Ferguson’s path to becoming a donor through the Department of Defense’s Salute to Life program began while he was in Airman Leadership School.
“I signed up for the bone marrow registry in 2003 during ALS,” said Ferguson. “This was our class's volunteer project; we had a class member from immunizations tell us about the program and everyone agreed that would be something good to accomplish together.”
Nearly a decade later in 2012, Ferguson would have the opportunity to help Zack, a critically ill 17-year-old leukemia patient who required a bone marrow transplant from a donor match.
“This was an opportunity to follow through on something I had committed to doing years prior,” said Ferguson. “There were a few locations throughout the country that I could go to in order to undergo the procedure, and I ultimately chose a hospital in San Diego.”
Ferguson described the process as easy and accommodating from start to finish, while also taking along a family member for support.
“There was some residual pain from the extraction sites on my body, but I was surprised at the simplicity of the procedure and how quickly everything was done,” said Ferguson. “There was a point of no return in the process where if I had backed out, the recipient would have been left in a critical state, but I never had cold feet about fulfilling my end.”
Once accomplished, Zack soon received Ferguson’s bone marrow donation and began his journey to recovery and remission.
“You’re afforded the opportunity after you donate to receive updates about the recipient, and I chose to do this for myself and to also share my information with Zack,” said Ferguson. “I was told he made a strong recovery and that he has remained in remission ever since, which naturally I was very happy to hear.”
Earlier this year Ferguson received another update about Zack, not only was he well, but he was also getting married and invited him to share the occasion with his family.
“This was all very unexpected for me,” said Ferguson. “While we had shared this life-altering experience together, we hadn’t remained in touch with each other during the years that followed. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to meet Zack and his family for such a big moment in his life.”
Ferguson arrived for Zack's special day and was greeted with an overwhelmingly positive reception by the friends and family of the man whose life he had effectively saved years prior.
“The impact I had on Zack and his family became clear once I met his parents and fiancé,” said Ferguson. “They were all very emotional and expressed gratitude for the role I had played which allowed him to be there that day, and every day over the last ten years.”
By attending this milestone, Ferguson also learned through the experience that he shared more than just bone marrow with Zack.
“Getting to know him as a person was really eye-opening for me,” said Ferguson. “I learned that he chose me as his donor because his grandfather also served in the Air Force and that we shared a passion for cars. We’ve stayed in touch since the wedding and try to speak regularly now.”
When a donor is matched with a recipient, they are effectively a match for everything and not just bone marrow.
“In getting to know Zack better I also learned that he was born with only one kidney,” said Ferguson. “Seeing as how we are a match, should Zack ever need anything again I would be there for him as best I could.”
In retrospect, Ferguson highly recommends the Salute to Life program as a low-risk way to provide a life-saving service to someone in need.
“It became clear to me after meeting Zack and his family that my simple donation of bone marrow had given them ten more years of life, happiness, and memories together,” said Ferguson. “I wasn’t prepared for how meeting them would affect me, but I’m honored to be able to assist in something like that and share this connection with them now.”
Patients with life-threatening illnesses such as leukemia, lymphoma, anemia, and other conditions depend on these donations if they are not responding to standard treatment.
To give the gift of life by joining the million plus potential donors through the Salute to Life Program, visit salutetolife.org.