Highland News Leader

Highland family seeks donors for bone marrow registry drive

Dennis Bellm
Dennis Bellm News Leader

Years ago, the Bellm family participated in a marrow donor registry drive to help a friend in need. Now, the Bellms find themselves in the same position — asking the people of their community to be a friend and a donor.

Every year, Denis Bellm attends the health fair sponsored by St. Joseph’s Hospital in Highland. At the April 2016 fair, Denis was told that his blood count was not right. In September, following several more blood tests and appointments with various doctors, he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome or MDS, a bone marrow disorder which is considered “pre-leukemia,” or according to Denis’ wife Shirley, “leukemia’s first cousin.”

Bellm has been undergoing chemo therapy treatments at the Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis since October.

“He’s in good shape, for the shape he’s in. The biggest thing is his frustration with not being able to work the long days he is used to — that’s just not who he is,” Shirley said of her husband, who has owned and operated Broadway Battery & Tire in Highland since 1974. The shop sells tires and does automotive repairs and also sells and services large appliances.

The only cure for MDS is a bone marrow transplant. Since Denis’ diagnosis, the family has paired with the bone marrow donor registry, Be The Match, to help find a match. It’s the same organization that did a registry drive for Melissa Moss Brown in Highland years ago, the one in which the Bellms, as well as hundreds of other local residents, participated.

Being a donor

According to Shirley Bellm, there are two ways that anyone from the age of 18 to 44 can help.

The first is to attend a registry drive being held from 4 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday Jan. 10 at the Highland Knights of Columbus Hall. To register, a donor will only need to fill out a brief medical history and take a cheek swab test, a process takes about 15 minutes.

Matching a donor is based upon race, ethnicity and DNA testing. Usually the younger the donor is, there is a better chance for a successful transplant.

For those who cannot attend the drive, registration can also be done online at join.bethe.match.org/dennisbellm. Registering will send a do-it-yourself kit directly to your home. The kit only takes about 10 minutes to complete.

According to Shirley Bellm, being a white, Caucasian male gives Denis an 80 percent chance of finding a donor, but the family still needs people to come out and register at the drive. She said that, even if registering with the drive does not make find a donor for her husband, it might find a match for someone else.

“When we go down to St. Louis, we meet other people who are waiting for a transplant, and we learn their stories,” Shirley said. “If we could find someone in Highland, how wonderful would that be?”

Even with his situation, Shirley Bellm said that Denis’ first question was not about himself, but about “how bad it would be” to be a donor. Luckily, they had a friend close to home to share her experience.

A family friend, Sherri Jones, participated in the donor registry process with Be The Match. Jones registered with the donor bank when she registered for the Melissa Moss Brown drive. Years later, Jones was contacted and told that she was a match for someone whom she had never met. Jones accepted the request to donate.

“When you know you are doing something to save someone’s life, your own comfort becomes a secondary concern,” Jones said.

According Jones, the whole process, from start to finish, took a couple of months to complete, but the actual procedure only took four to five hours. Jones said that, besides a couple of needles, the process was painless and that she would do it again “in a heartbeat” if she had the chance.

“If I can share my experience to encourage other people to do it, I will,” she said.

Jones also said that Be The Match paid for all of the expenses related to the process, including a flight for her and a companion to the site of the transplant. Be The Match will also coordinate and schedule all of the appointments for the selected donor.

At the moment, all the Bellms can do is be patient and wait for someone like Jones to be found.

“We like to say we are in the ‘P-Stage’ of our life,” Shirley Bellm.

The steps in this stage include patience, perseverance, positivity, keeping people posted, the promise to their marriage and to their faith, peace and progress. Besides registering in the bone marrow drive, the family is asking for prayers and positive thoughts.

“We want to thank the community for everything,” Shirley Bellm said. “We can’t go anywhere with out anyone wanting to know how he is. That’s this community — that’s how it is. Highland is one of the most generous communities you could imagine.”

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.

Source: National Marrow Donor Program (Be The Match)