When it comes to potential bone marrow donors, midshipmen at the Naval Academy are just the right candidates.
They're a young, healthy and ethnically diverse bunch. And more than 2,000 of them have now joined a program, supported by the Pentagon, to enroll members of the military in a bone marrow donor registry.
Midshipmen lined up this month to fill out paperwork and have the inside of a cheek swabbed — necessary steps to join the Salute to Life bone marrow registry, based in Rockville.
"This was something that was really embraced by the brigade," said Midshipman Riley Miller, a junior from Warrenton, Va., who helped organize the registration drive.
Miller and her classmates were inspired to organize the drive after hearing from Tom Teach, a member of the Class of 1968 whose grandson has leukemia.
"The help that they provided to us was enormous," said Eddy Medina, a donor recruiter for the program. "This is the market that we're after: people who are young and in good general health."
The C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Recruitment and Research Program, as the program is formally known, was founded in 1991 to identify and register potential donors. It was named for Florida Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who promoted bone marrow donation. Young died last year.
Bone marrow or stem cells can be used to treat dozens of conditions, including multiple forms of leukemia and lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, aplastic anemia and sickle-cell disease.
Finding a match for bone marrow can be challenging. Patients need a donor who is of the same ethnic heritage. That's why the military, which is among the nation's most ethnically diverse institutions, makes for a good potential pool of donors, Medina said.
When a patient matches a donor, the donor can give marrow in one of two ways.
For traditional donation, marrow is removed from the hip bone with a needle. For peripheral blood stem cell donation, donors are given medication for several days that causes stem cells to move from bones to the blood. The cells are then collected using a blood filtering machine, similar to the donation process for blood platelets.
Medina said the process, while uncomfortable, is not as painful as some might think.
He says Salute to Life is structured around the unique circumstances of service members, who move frequently and can be difficult to track down.
When donors are matched to patients, he said, "We know how to find them. We have the protocol in place to find anyone in the military."
The Pentagon funds Salute to Life, and military leaders help the organization run registration drives and facilitate donations.
The program is separate from, but works with, the broader National Marrow Donor Program. It's the only organization authorized to recruit bone marrow donors from service members. Civilian defense employees and their spouses may also join the registry.
Since 1991, Salute to Life has registered more than 800,000 potential donors and coordinated more than 6,000 donations of marrow and stem cells — most of them from service members to civilians.
Registry members have a 1 in 40 chance of being called in for extra tests for a potential donation and a 1 in 540 chance of being asked to make a donation.
When a match is identified, the donor is granted leave or temporary assignment in order to donate. Salute to Life pays all the costs of transportation, lodging and donation, which may be performed at one of two Washington-area hospitals.
Cmdr. John Schofield, the academy's spokesman, was particularly pleased to see the midshipmen's response to the drive. Schofield signed up in 2009, when he was stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, and donated bone marrow in 2011.
"The bone marrow registry drive is yet another example of the great things midshipmen do," Schofield said. "This entire effort was conceived by them and run by them. It is a testament to their caring and dedication."
Miller worked with fellow midshipmen Wesley Yuan and Tim Fisher and academy staff to organize the drive. They recruited dozens of volunteers from the academy's Medical Club, the Midshipman Action Group — the academy's principal service club — and the brigade at large.
Medina sees the academy drive benefiting the registry for years to come.
"These midshipmen are going to be leaders, and that's worth a lot to us," he said. "In the future, when we want to do bone marrow drives, they can help us because they know about the program. … When they become commanders of a ship or unit, and I call, they'll say, 'Yes, I know it. Let's do it.'"