For the thousands of people diagnosed every year with life-threatening blood cancers and bone marrow disorders, a cure exists. However, the remedy lies not within a pill, but in the bones — and ultimately the caring soul — of another person.
Denis Bellm of Highland is one such person in need. Last September, Bellm, who has owned and operated Broadway Battery & Tire in Highland since 1974, was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a disorder that can only be cured through a bone marrow transplant.
Over the past 25 years, Be The Match, which is operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, has managed the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world. On Tuesday, Jan. 10, they came to Highland. Bellm’s friends and family organized a registry drive at the Knights of Columbus Hall to try and pair him with the person who might save his life.
“He is like a second father to me,” said Liz Weder, who has known Bellm since she was a child and served as a drive volunteer. “When we heard, we wanted to do whatever we could to help him make it through this. It’s something that everyone can do to help each other.”
A hall filled with volunteers in bright orange shirts reading, “B a friend, B a donor,” welcomed scores of people willing to give of themselves.
I’ve got so many people praying for me, it’s unbelievable.
Denis Bellm of Highland
Marilyn Bloemker, Bellm’s sister-in-law, said that once the family heard of the situation, they knew that they would need to do something to help. That is when they paired with BeTheMatch.
A dozen of Bellm’s friends and family pitched in to make it happen.
“I organized it, but I didn’t have to, because of the people that are in the group,” Bloemker said. “We just all worked together. Everybody stepped up and did their part. I just held the meetings at my house.”
Even Bellm’s schoolmates from the St. Paul Class of 1968 lent a hand, donating their time to find people to bring refreshments to the drive.
“We sent an email out to all the girls in our class asking for cookie donations for refreshments today,” said Mary Thole, a former classmate. “Probably, there were 12 or 13 people who responded and brought cookies today.”
‘An Amazing Turnout’
Denise Mosley, community engagement representative for BeTheMatch, said a good event will typically draw about 25 people. There were that many standing outside when the doors of the KC Hall opened.
Many who came were friends and family, including Bellm’s 95-year-old mother, Fern.
Because of age guidelines — a transplant is usually the most successful if the sample is taken from a donor between the ages of 18-44 — Fern was not allowed to register, which was disappointing to her. She is “just as healthy” as any of the other people, she said.
He is like a second father to me. When we heard, we wanted to do what ever we could to help him make it through this. It’s something that everyone can do to help each other.
Liz Weder, Bellm family friend and registry drive volunteer
But most were accepted. It total, 194 committed potential donors registered during the three-hour drive.
“This was an amazing turn out,” Mosley said.
A large number were people who had never met Bellm, such as Julie Schonhardt of a Highland.
“I saw (the flier) on a bulletin at church, and I decided that I wanted to try and help,” Schonhardt said. “If I had a family member who needed any kind of donation, I would hope that everyone would turn out for them as well. We’re just trying to help each other out; we’re all in this together.”
The intent of the drive was to help Bellm, but it may help others, too. Even if a donor might not be a match for Bellm, they may be a match for someone else.
“The interesting thing is, one of the first people that was here told us that he was just diagnosed with the same MDS a month ago and asked if this could help him,” said Shirley Bellm, Denis’ wife. “Absolutely, that’s what its here for.”
“Because of this drive, we are giving thousands of patients hope to find their cure,” Mosley said.
A huge, “Thank You”
According to Shirley Bellm, there was no way that her husband could have been kept away from the event. He had to be there, in person, to offer his gratitude.
“Thank you to everybody from Highland,” he said. “There are people from St. Louis, people from Collinsville, it’s not just Highland. Thank you.”
The outpouring of support was overwhelming, the family said.
“I don’t know why I’m surprised,” Shirley Bellm said. “This is Highland. This is what people do here.”
“I’ve got so many people praying for me, it’s unbelievable,” Denis said.
Still time to register
The drive is not over until a match is found. Anyone who still wishes to donate can do so online at Denis’ personal URL at BeTheMatch.org. As of Jan. 12, 27 people have already registered online.
The Bellm family also wants people to know that if someone is already registered with BeTheMatch, they can call and update their information. When they update the information, they can also have their file sent to Denis’ doctor to see if they are a potential match.
Bone Marrow Donation FAQs
- How is a bone marrow match determined? Doctors look for a donor who matches their patient’s tissue type, specifically their human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue type. HLAs are proteins — or markers — found on most cells in your body. Your immune system uses these markers to recognize which cells belong in your body and which do not. The closer the match between the patient’s HLA markers and yours, the better for the patient.
- How likely is it that I will match a patient and go on to donate? On average, about 1 in 430 U.S. “Be The Match Registry” members will go on to donate bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) to a patient.
- What happens if I match a patient? More testing will be done to see if you are the best possible match for the patient. Another cheek swab or blood sample may be needed. If the patient’s doctor selects you as the best donor for the patient, an information session will be scheduled so you can learn more about the donation process, risks and side effects. At that time, the donor will also learn the type of donation the patient’s doctor has requested — either bone marrow or cells collected from the blood, (PBSC) donation.
- How are bone marrow and peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation different? Donating bone marrow is a surgical procedure done under general or regional anesthesia in a hospital. While a donor receives anesthesia, doctors use needles to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of the pelvic bone. PBSC donation is a non-surgical procedure done in an outpatient clinic.
- Who pays for the donation process? Donors never pay for donating, and are never paid to donate. All medical costs for the donation procedure are covered by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), which operates the Be The Match Registry, or by the patient’s medical insurance, as are travel expenses and other non-medical costs. The only costs to the donor might be time taken off from work.
- Does donating marrow hurt? Are there side effects? Marrow donation is done under general or regional anesthesia so the donor experiences no pain during the collection procedure. Discomfort and side effects vary from person to person. Most marrow donors experience some side effects after donation.
- Are there any risks to marrow donation? No medical procedure is risk-free. The majority of donors from the Be The Match Registry feel completely recovered within a few weeks. The risk of side effects of anesthesia during marrow donation is similar to that during other surgical procedures.
- Can you still register? Yes. Anyone can register online at BeTheMatch.org or register directly for Denis at his personal URL: http://join.bethematch.org/DenisBelm
Source: National Marrow Donor Program (Be The Match)