Bone marrow is not something many people think about in their daily lives.
But for those with leukemia, sickle cell disease and other cancers and disorders, bone marrow can mean the difference between living and dying.
That's what David Lindsay faced 20 years ago as a rising freshman at Davidson College.
As a basketball player at West Charlotte High School, he considered himself in excellent shape until one day he suddenly found it difficult to run up and down the court for an entire game. After blood tests, his doctor told him he had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, an extremely fatal and fast cancer.
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Lindsay went through chemotherapy, but after a year in remission, his cancer returned. Doctors told Lindsay his only other option would be a bone marrow transplant.
Luckily, his sister was a match, and Lindsay soon returned to school.
But for those who can't find a donor within their family, the chances of finding a perfect match become grim. Only 30 percent will receive a transplant from the Be the Match Registry, operated by the National Marrow Donor Program.
"I got to know a lot of people from the hospital who didn't find a match and ended up passing away," he said. "That just spurred me and others to think, 'Why not just get more people to sign up for the registry?'" So, Lindsay started the Project Life organization at Davidson College 20 years ago. The program has one goal: get as many people added to the list of potential bone marrow donors as possible.
Lindsay recently acquired a 501(c)(3) designation for Project Life, and he hopes to expand to other college campuses in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
Getting on the list of potential donors doesn't take long - just the time it takes to fill out a registration form and to give a quick swab of the inside of the cheek for DNA information. A 10-minute commitment could end up saving someone's life.
"There's this opportunity to become this miracle maker if you just get signed up," said Lindsay.
Sarah McIlroy, the current campus coordinator for Project Life, knows all about the importance of finding a perfect bone marrow match.
While she was a freshman in college, she put her information on the list of potential donors just as her father was receiving treatment for leukemia.
She ended up not being a match for her father. After looking for the perfect match, her family settled on getting a bone marrow transplant from someone who was a near-match.
Her father passed away in July 2009 after his body rejected the transplant.
"There are six billion people on Earth," she said. "Everyone should have a perfect bone-marrow match if we can just get everyone registered."
Today, the Be The Match registry includes 8 million potential donors from the United States and 14 million worldwide, said Addie Sanders, recruiting account executive at Be The Match's Charlotte office.
"Finding a match is very difficult, and there are a lot of factors we can't always control," she said. "But the factor that is most within our control is keeping that registry populated so that we can find a match for all patients who need one."
During its first year, Project Life signed up 400 people on the bone-marrow donor registry. That number has decreased to less than 200 in recent years.
The cost to get registered, which is $100 per person, is covered by Project Life, and the organization registers Davidson College students as well as area residents.
McIlroy said a lack of information on the importance of bone marrow as well as a concern about the risks associated with donation can keep some people from registering.
But unlike donating an organ such as a kidney, McIlroy said donating bone marrow is less invasive and risky.
And unlike in the past, today's doctors take marrow from the hip bone, and the donor is put under full anesthesia.
The National Marrow Donor Program covers all hospital and medical expenses for donors if they are called upon to help, according to McIlroy."With the registration, we're not asking you to do anything monumental at that point," she said. "
All it means is you're putting yourself in a pool of people that are committed to saying, 'Maybe someday I can be a life-saving opportunity for someone else.'"