Blizzard didn't get in the way of man's donation of stem cells
Groton - When Alfred Howard offered a sample of his cheek cells to an organization looking for matches for cancer patients in need of blood and bone marrow, he probably never imagined the lengths others would go to help him carry out his good deed.
"I just wanted to give someone a second chance at their life, and we needed a group effort," Howard, 40, an oil rig mechanic and former Navy seaman, said Monday.
Last Tuesday, while travel was banned during the blizzard, Howard rode in a Groton Town police truck to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London to get his final injection of filgrastim, a medication used to decrease the chances of infection in donated blood products. After that, an American Ambulance driver transported him to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where he underwent a four-hour peripheral blood stem cell donation process, in which blood is drawn, plasma separated out and reinjected back into the donor. From the plasma, stem cells are extracted for a waiting cancer patient.
"The patient goes through intense rounds of chemotherapy, which leaves them without an immune system and extremely vulnerable," said Desiree Chavis, communications associate for Delete Blood Cancer, the organization that arranged the donation. A nurse from Delete Blood Cancer had given Howard the first three shots of filgrastim at his home in the weeks leading up to the donation, but couldn't get there during the blizzard to deliver the last one. So her organization contacted Yale-New Haven about finding another way.
The transplant, she explained, must happen within a short window of time after the chemotherapy, so once the procedure starts, it must continue uninterrupted - blizzard or no. This particular donation was further complicated by the fact that the recipient, a middle-aged man with lymphoma, lives in England.
"It was pretty intense," she said. "It took a lot of teamwork."
Howard said he was originally supposed to take Amtrak to New Haven for the shot and procedure, but with train service canceled, that wasn't a possibility. Yale-New Haven's emergency management staff contacted L+M about administering the shot, and L+M in turn contacted American Ambulance.
"Everybody wanted to make sure we could make this happen," said Ron Kersey, emergency management coordinator for L+M.
A couple of hours after the donation procedure was finished, Howard got a ride home with a livery service. The procedure wasn't painful, he said. It just made him a little tired afterwards, and he felt good knowing the quart-sized bag of his stem cells was on its way to an airport for the overseas flight to England, where a very sick man he didn't know was waiting for a cure.
"We know the courier was able to get it out Wednesday night," Chavis said.
The odyssey of Howard's stem cells began with chance encounter in Charlotte, N.C., two years ago when he had traveled there for work. He stopped at a USO office there on the day Delete Blood Cancer was collecting cheek swabs, and decided to offer his.
In October, Delete Blood Cancer informed him he was a match. The donation was scheduled for January, after Howard would be back home from another month away for his job, this time in the Canary Islands.
"I feel that I'm blessed, so why not help somebody else?" said Howard, who has lived in Groton with his wife, Tomeka, and their daughter, Kaylah, since 2010.
Tomeka Howard said the turn of events was a public expression of her husband's character that ended up bringing people together to accomplish something good.
"I'm so proud of what he's done for someone else," she said. "I always knew he was a selfless kind of person, because of the way he is with me. But now he's sharing that with the world. And everyone did a good job of making sure he was safe."
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