When most people travel, the last place they want to end up is in the hospital. For me, that's always where I'm headed.
About once a month, I volunteer as a courier for the National Marrow Donor Program, transporting life-saving bone marrow or stem cells to transplant patients around the world.
It's a joy to help, but it can also be exhausting. (Consider how much faster you would run to make a connecting flight if you were carrying much-needed blood instead of souvenirs.) My fiancee once joked that I wasn't happy if I wasn't on a train or plane once a week. During the past year, I have taken 14 courier trips in the United States and Europe, and accumulated thousands of frequent-flier miles.
While delivering hope and relief to leukemia and lymphoma patients, I've experienced new places, returned to some favorites and seen dear friends who have moved across the country.
I've also tracked down the best cheese steak in Philadelphia (Pat's King of Steaks); sampled everything from gelato to currywurst at the Rathausmarkt in Hamburg, and filled up on roasted Dungeness crabs at Thanh Long in San Francisco's Sunset District.
My trips are just one part of a program that maintains a registry of more than 5 million donors who have had their blood tested, cataloged and made available for matches. Each month, more than 300 patients find a match in the registry and receive a transplant.
But there are thousands more who search the registry and never find an eligible donor. Only two out of 10 patients get the transplant they need.
The deliveries I make are paid for with donations from people and foundations, public funding and recipients' health insurance. For privacy reasons, I never meet the people I help, and they don't know who I am either.
I began volunteering in 2002 when my aunt, who works for the Michigan Community Blood Centers in Grand Rapids, asked me to make a delivery to Dallas. I had just graduated from college and was a little nervous carrying such a critical package to a place I had never been. Despite my nerves, it went smoothly, and I even had some time after the delivery to enjoy the city and tour the Texas School Book Depository and John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza.
Planning for my trips usually begins when I receive an e-mail listing volunteer opportunities, including travel dates and destinations. They can range from a morning run to Philadelphia to a five-day trip overseas.
If the trip doesn't conflict with work or graduate school, I put my name in for consideration. If I'm chosen, I try to build in some sightseeing or dinner with a friend, but that's never guaranteed.
On a recent trip to New York, I spent all of an hour in Manhattan, mostly waiting in line for a taxi to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, before catching the train back to Baltimore.
Whenever my mission comes up in small talk on a plane or train, most people are amazed. First they think I'm carrying an organ. Then they ask why I'm not a paramedic or nurse, or traveling in a helicopter that lands on a hospital roof.
I travel commercial and in coach, just like everyone else, except my carry-on contains a small cooler and bag to transport the fluids. Marrow is sealed in plastic bags, and blood is stored in tubes. Sometimes ice packs lie on top of the marrow; other times, the marrow is kept at room temperature. Blood stem cells can be preserved for up to a month, but marrow has a shelf life of about 48 hours. So once the marrow is in my hands, I have to get it to its destination on time. Given the current state of travel - fewer flights and onboard services - that's not always easy.
When traveling in the Northeast, I prefer to use Amtrak. As a courier, it is important to have backup plans, and Amtrak offers frequent departures and few travel restrictions. Air travel presents more obstacles and often requires quick thinking to be flexible.
In November, the coordinator for my trip to San Francisco called to tell me that the bone marrow would be ready for pickup ahead of schedule at Georgetown University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington. I realized that if I hurried, I could make an earlier flight, leaving Dulles International Airport just an hour after I picked up the marrow.
I arrived only 20 minutes before departure and knew that if I went to the ticket counter, an agent would say there wasn't enough time to change my itinerary. So I headed straight for security. I can't take the marrow through the X-ray machine, but luckily, the Transportation Security Administration screeners knew what they were doing. I breezed through.
After hopping off one of Dulles' Star Wars-esque shuttles, I sprinted to the gate, which was empty: a bad sign. I explained to the attendant that I was carrying bone marrow, and with one minute to spare, she allowed me to board the flight.
On another flight, the same explanation won over an agent at New York's LaGuardia Airport. And once, my flight to North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham International Airport was delayed an hour. As soon as the announcement was made, I, along with every other passenger, rushed to another gate to try to catch an earlier flight. I managed to land at the front of the crowd - no one had really formed a line - and showed my paperwork. As others were put on standby, the gate agent told me to get on the plane and grab an empty seat in the front.
Security poses another set of challenges. I can't check any luggage given the likelihood that my itinerary will change. I also have to get to the transplant center promptly, which means I can't waste time hanging around the baggage carousel. And I have to treat the marrow like I would my passport - never letting it out of my sight. Each TSA agent handles my cooler differently. Although I am always given the proper paperwork to get through security, the best approach is to explain why I'm there and wait patiently while they check the marrow.
On a recent trip to Hamburg, Germany, via London's Heathrow Airport, I was nearly denied passage. Upon presenting the cooler and paperwork to be checked, workers wouldn't let me through security until a supervisor gave his approval. But then the supervisor said he couldn't let me through until he got approval from his supervisor. After about 30 minutes, the supervisor's supervisor returned and explained that it was taking some time to confirm my courier trip. Next time, he said, someone needed to call them.
Although I often make time to meet up with old friends and see a few sights, I must squeeze those visits into a very tight itinerary.
During an afternoon in Manhattan, I toured The New York City Waterfalls, a public art project by Olafur Eliasson, and had time for a hot dog and shake at Danny Meyers' Shake Shack in Madison Square Park.
Last fall, after a morning run along Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, I climbed Coit Tower with a college friend. In Hamburg, I spent a rainy afternoon at the Kunsthalle art museum.
One of my longest trips was to Nijmegen, Netherlands. After seeing so many people riding bikes, I decided to visit the National Bicycle Museum. I also took a day trip to Maastricht, a small town to the south.
My flight home departed from Amsterdam, but it was scheduled to leave before the earliest train from Nijmegen that morning. So, the night before my flight, I took the last train from Nijmegen and spent the night in the airport.
It was miserable, but worth it. I gave someone a second chance at life and accumulated enough frequent-flier miles to cover a ticket for my honeymoon.
become a courier
Want to travel to help others? In addition to courier services, volunteers can assist with sponsor groups, fundraising and community events. For more information on joining the registry, contact: Nadya Dutchin, Account Executive, National Marrow Donor Program, P.O. Box 6478, Columbia, MD 21045, 443-472-1446 or visit marrow.org.