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Airman Donates Bone Marrow to Stranger in Need

  • Published
  • By Airman First Class Sophia Robello
  • 7th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

She was in the midst of Air Force technical training in 2015 when she heard shattering news that echoed throughout her family. Her three-year-old cousin, Benaiah, was diagnosed with Leukemia. 

2nd Lt. Ashlyn Zurek, 7th Force Support Squadron career development officer in charge, and her family were in shock because none of their close relatives had cancer before. 

“We were all terrified when my cousin was diagnosed with Leukemia because cancer is very scary,” Zurek said. “We were all fearing the worst and didn’t quite know what to expect in the coming months.”

Sometime after her cousin was diagnosed with cancer, she came across an organization that hit home to her: the Salute to Life organization. Salute to Life is the DoD affiliated version of the organization “Be the Match”, an organization focused on giving people a second chance at life through a bone marrow donation system. 

“I felt like in a small way I was doing my part to help humanity,” Zurek said. “I was also excited to see members registering because this organization saves lives. Who doesn’t want to save lives?”

After a medical employee took a swab from her cheek and she provided some personal information, Zurek became registered with the organization. From there, she went on with her normal daily routine and pushed forward with her life.

As the days turned into weeks and then turned into years, she completely forgot about registering to become a potential bone marrow match.

During that time, Zurek became a Public Affairs journeyman at Pease Air National Guard Base, New Hampshire, and was working at a restaurant in 2019 when she received the fateful phone call where she found out that she was a possible match for someone. She immediately began testing to determine her compatibility.

“So many people that are on various donation registries wait forever to find a match,” Zurek said. “Being a healthy person, I was able to donate fast and save a life.” 

According to the Salute to Life website, more than 17,000 individuals in America are diagnosed with a disease that requires a bone marrow transplant. Of those people who need a transplant, only 30 percent of the patients can find a matching donor within their family. 

“It felt like I had more blood drawn in three months than I have in my entire life,” she said. 

Zurek went through extensive testing that included tests of her leukocyte genes and blood levels that determined her compatibility with the recipient. After months of testing and screening, it all came down to a single email in September of 2019 telling her “You are the match.” 

That began the process of the donation itself, starting with a week of injections of filgrastim.  Filgrastim is a twice-daily injection meant to increase the number of stem cells in a person’s body. An unfortunate side effect of the injections, however, is bone pain from the stark increase in bone marrow within the bones. After the injections, it was time to get to the donation center.

Zurek completed the injections, and after a flight in September 2019, she donated the life-saving bone marrow in the Philadelphia branch of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. 

“I had to get a central line put into my neck because I have really small veins in my arms,” she said. “I’m a healthy, young, fit person, so going through a couple of days of discomfort was so minuscule in comparison to giving someone a second chance at life.”

In the middle of October 2020, she received an email from her contact at Salute to Life asking if she would like to volunteer her information and see if her recipient wanted to exchange contact information. 

Due to legal reasons, bone marrow donors and recipients stay anonymous for the entire donation process. Even then, both parties have to agree to release their information, so it was a nerve-wracking wait to see if the other family would do the same.

The entire time they knew nothing besides gender, age, and whether they were from the US or outside of the country.

The two were able to exchange contact information and finally met virtually, as COVID-19 greatly increased the dangers of meeting in-person. The two equally felt strange simply calling the other “their recipient” or “their donor”, so they named one another to give an extra sense of friendship and personalization to their journey. “So it was ‘Henry and Ruby, saving the world’, so that was a huge part," explained Zurek. 

“The whole time, from calling me Ruby, they were also calling me their superhero, which seems like an exaggeration to me,” Zurek said. “For me, it was doing something that anybody else would hopefully do in my position.”

Zurek says that donating bone marrow opened her eyes to how sharing a ‘gift of life’ can change not only the individuals, but the entire families involved. She asserts that choosing to donate is never an easy choice with the physical and mental barriers behind it. 

“It’s incredible to be able to say that I have a cellular twin out there and that I have friends for life,” Zurek said. “As a kid, I always wanted a twin, now I finally have one!”