What would you do to save a stranger’s life?
This is Mike Rice’s story. It appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
It began with a cheek swab. It morphed into a life-saving stem-cell transplant for a stranger and an unexpected bond between two families.
At the age of 28 Mike Rice felt a calling to make a gift with impact. So at the urging of his wife, Molly, and a cousin who worked there, the Mendota Heights, Minnesota man joined the Be the Match Registry in March 2015. His siblings followed suit.
BTM maintains an international registry of more than 13 million potential donors. The purpose is to offer a lifesaving opportunity to 70 percent of patients who need a bone marrow or stem cell transplant but lack a familial match who can donate their cells. Most such patients suffer from blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, though others suffer from less common diseases such as aplastic anemia.
The cheek swab is the beginning of a lengthy and extraordinary medical treatment. Using the DNA collected with the swab, BTM compares a potential donor’s protein markers (HLA) with those of patients.
Thereafter, it’s a numbers game. The more the markers line up, the better the match.
One in 40 registrants is called for additional testing; one in 300 is selected as the best possible match; and one in 430 actually donates.
Rice got his first call just a few weeks after submitting the swab. He was on the short list for a patient, he learned.
The first step – a blood draw — was problematic. Rice was terrified of needles. But after the first of what became many pokes he cured his fear. “It was mind over matter,” he says.
Another donor was a better match for that patient. But it wasn’t long before Rice got another call from Be the Match.
“We think you might have superhero blood.”
He had matched another patient.
Rice was philosophical. “I felt like it was a message from God that this was the person I was ultimately going to help,” he says.
His instincts were correct. He was a perfect match for Jim Riddle, a Virginia man who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on April Fool’s Day, 2014.
Riddle had unsuccessfully undergone several rounds of chemotherapy and a transplant using his own blood cells.
Rice was Riddle’s last hope for a cure.
Rice was all in.
He went for testing at the University of Minnesota to confirm there were no risks to him making the donation. Suddenly, it felt real. He was going to save someone’s life.
He developed a mental framework for navigating the journey. He was not in it for the accolades or attention; the patient’s needs and experience were primary, his secondary; and he would fulfill his commitment.
When the transplant was scheduled in December 2015 he received daily injections of filgastrim to increase his cells for the donation. That was the worst part of the process, Rice recalls, but he knew it was relative. Riddle was undergoing a rigorous process to destroy his immune system and make room for Rice’s healthy blood cells.
But Riddle contracted an infection and the transplant was postponed. Patient and family worried Rice would back out because of the delay.
Though BTM asks potential donors to make a lasting commitment, many do not. And that can be devastating for patients and their families. But Rice was undeterred by the delay.
On April 14, 2016, with an IV in each arm and family at his side, Rice made his gift. Fatigued but satisfied he returned to work the next day.
Rice’s propensity to give was fostered by his parents and large extended family. His late grandfather, Dick Long, was a St. Paul icon, renowned for serving meals at Dorothy Day Center – and much more.
Long recognized his grandson’s desire to help others. In their last conversation before Long died in 2010 he told his “little buddy” he knew he would continue to do good things and to treat people well. Those words were fresh in Rice’s mind throughout his experience as a donor.
BTM enables patient and donor to have anonymous communications in the first year after the transplant. Thereafter they can arrange to meet.
Rice and Riddle were eager to connect. They became acquainted through email correspondence that began months after the transplant. Riddle shared his gratitude and some of his story.
“I am a 57-year-old male, turning 58 soon. I have a lovely wife, and two lovely daughters age 25 and 27. My 27-year-old is getting married this year. Thanks to you I will be able to walk her down the aisle and experience one of the greatest moments of my life. …”
Both Rice and Ritter wanted to meet. Last summer, donor, recipient and families met at Be the Match headquarters in Minneapolis. A celebration followed at Rice’s parents’ home in West St. Paul.
The two families maintain regular contact now. Next spring the Riddles will host a party to commemorate the second anniversary of the transplant. Members of the Rice family will travel to Virginia to celebrate with them. The blood cells are just part of what connects these families now.
Have you joined the Be the Match Registry? Most donors are between 18 and 44 years. There is a demand for donors of color. My son was just 13 when he donated his marrow and saved his sister’s life. You might save a life, too!