Using DNA to Save a Life

Using DNA to Save a Life

If you know members of the military, you may have heard them say, “Helping people is in my DNA.” These words take on new meaning with the experience of one U.S. Airman’s fight to save lives outside of his civic duty.

Senior Master Sergeant Paul Duit, College of Liberal Studies graduate, recently donated bone marrow to save someone on the other side of the world. A woman’s leukemia put her in critical need of a transplant, and DNA testing revealed Duit as one of only a handful of donors who could provide the life-saving marrow. In the months following the procedure, Duit committed himself to sharing his story and spreading awareness about the program that saved her life.

A Salute to Life

Demonstration for Salute to Life
Photos courtesy of the Air National Guard and Paul Duit

Duit wasn’t sure what he was signing up for when he joined the Salute to Life program, but he knew it was for a good cause.

Duit first learned about the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program—also known as Salute to Life—while attending a registration drive at the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy. He was told the National Marrow Donor Program for volunteer marrow donors offers the best source of hope for thousands needing rescue from otherwise fatal blood diseases.

According to the C.W. Bill Young DoD Marrow Donor Center, more than 12,000 people are diagnosed each year with diseases requiring an infusion of stem cells. More than 70 percent of blood cancer patients are unable to find an appropriate match within their own family and will require an unrelated donor.

The Salute to Life program attempts to match military personnel and their dependents, DoD civilian employees, Reservist, Coast Guard and National Guard members to people in need of marrow donations around the world. The more members there are in the donation registry, the better the chances are of finding a match for the recipient.

Duit realized his small contribution had the potential to make an incredible impact, and he wanted to do what he could to save lives. All he had to do was join the registry.

Saving Lives with a Swab

Swab for Salute to Life
Photos courtesy of the Air National Guard and Paul Duit

Signing up was simple. Duit was asked to provide contact information that could be used if the registry found him to be a potential match for someone in need of transplant. He then passed a swab across the inside of his cheek and handed his DNA off to officials who could store the information in a digital database. Duit quickly completed the process and forgot the experience soon after.

Six years later he received the call.

“I was found to be a potential match for a 53-year-old woman in Hong Kong who had leukemia,” he said.

Duit knew the age, location and disease of the woman he was saving but not much else. Personal information is withheld from the donor and recipient to protect the privacy of both parties.

“Everyone discouraged me from donating marrow because they heard how painful it could be,” he said. “I’m neither a medical professional nor military security forces personnel, so I never thought I would be able to save a life by just being myself and giving something I freely had to give. When I thought about the small amount of pain I might experience compared with the life-threatening illness she was suffering from, I felt I could endure any pain that came with the procedure. ”

Duit was surprised to discover he wouldn’t have to endure any pain at all.

Donating Marrow

Paul Duit after Salute to Life surgery“The most surprising thing about donating marrow was that it did not hurt,” he said. “They put you under for the procedure and, when I woke up, I felt more alive than I have ever been. I was waiting for any medication to wear off and for the pain to set in, but it never did. I was walking around within hours of the procedure and have never looked back.”

In the months since the procedure, Duit dedicated himself to sharing information about the registry with fellow military men. He is an advocate of the Salute to Life program, as well as programs that register those with no military affiliation, like Be the Match.

He wants to dispel myths about the procedure’s invasiveness, as well as the likelihood of being called for donation.

Donating marrow is not like donating blood, where a pint of A+ blood might be stored for use on anyone who can receive A+ blood. Bone marrow donation only occurs if you are a positive DNA match to the recipient in need.

“There are two ways to donate,” Duit explained further. “The first is more commonly known as bone marrow transplant. In this method, they put you completely under anesthesia and insert a small needle into the back of your hip bone to extract the marrow. The bone starts to heal as soon as it’s removed and the marrow replenishes itself in no time.

“The other procedure is less invasive and more widely used. It is called peripheral blood stem cell donation. The individual will receive a shot of filgrastim, which boosts your white blood cell count. On the fifth day, the donor goes in for outpatient surgery and sits for four hours as the machine does the work of extracting what is needed and returning the rest of the blood back into the body.”

The method is determined by the doctor and the patient’s needs, but the doctor always takes into consideration the safety of the donor.

“You [the donor] have to be physically fit enough to go through the procedure and the recipient has to be strong enough to go through chemotherapy before he or she can receive the marrow,” he said. “So many factors have to be in place prior to the donation procedure, so you can actually go through the process. The odds of getting called for donation are so rare, and the rewards of potentially saving a life are so worth it.”

Duit described these rewards in detail in an interview with the Air National Guard.

“The feeling I got from donating was such an eye-opening experience,” Duit said. “For me not to have to do anything except be myself, and possibly save somebody’s life–that made me feel like there was a greater purpose in my life. You never know down the road if you or somebody you know might need it.”

Another Tomorrow

The end of this year will mark the first anniversary of Duit’s donation. He hopes to receive news the marrow recipient is doing well.

Individuals considering joining the registry can find more information at (for military personnel) and (for non-military persons).

No matter the organization, Duit’s advice for those interested is simple: “Sign up today to give someone else a chance at another tomorrow.”

Note: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017.

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Mary Hopper

Mary Hopper specializes in digital and content marketing at PACS. She is the project manager for the marketing department's team of writers, manages the college's digital advertising, and serves as editor and contributor for the PACS blog and social media efforts.