March 21, 2008

Student’s journey highlights need for bone marrow donors

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Cancer survivor and Vanderbilt student Charles Amos Clark, left, talks with his doctor Madan Jagasia, M.D., about Marrowthon. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Student’s journey highlights need for bone marrow donors

A weed-eater and a sharp-eyed brother set 22-year-old Charles Amos Clark on the path to Vanderbilt University, where he is now helping to organize the annual Marrowthon, a bone marrow donor drive, March 24-25.

Clark was doing some yard work one afternoon in 2005 when he took off his shirt and his brother noticed a huge red mark on his back.

“The weed-eater wasn't that heavy and shouldn't have made such a big mark,” said Clark.

A trip to the hometown doctor in Athens, Tenn., resulted in an alarming blood test and a referral to a Knoxville hospital where Clark received a frightening diagnosis — acute myelogenous leukemia.

Instead of returning to the University of the South for his sophomore year, Clark was facing the prospect of chemotherapy or a bone marrow transplant at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

“The staff at Vanderbilt was very upfront about the risks from this disease and the pluses and minuses of a stem cell transplant,” Clark remembered. “It had a calming effect because you knew they were being honest with you.”

Porter, his brother, turned out to be a perfect match for a transplant but Clark took some ribbing from his sibling.

“He told me I was really going to owe him, but I know he was happy that he was a match,” said Clark.

After intensive chemotherapy to prepare his own immune system, Clark received the new cells from his brother. Now, more than two years later, he is healthy and has transferred to Vanderbilt University, where he is a junior.

Madan Jagasia, M.D., is director of the Outpatient Transplant Program and supervised the transplant.

“We weighed the treatment options and the transplant appeared to offer a better prognosis. Charles is a perfect example of a young patient who received a stem cell transplant from a matched sibling donor and is now doing very well.”

But Clark knows not everyone has a family member whose DNA is a perfect match for a transplant. That's why he's helping with the Vanderbilt Cancer Society's Marrowthon, Monday, March 24, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Tuesday, March 25, 8 a.m. to noon, in the Student Life Center.

Volunteers who register to be bone marrow donors fill out a form and organizers will collect a cheek swab to get a DNA sample. There is a one in 20,000 chance the volunteers who sign up for the registry will be a match for someone who needs a transplant. Volunteers also can donate blood during the event.

Clark said he was inspired by the medical professionals he met at Vanderbilt and their sense of duty. “I am really thankful for the doctors, nurses and staff here. This is a first-class organization.”

That experience also may explain why he is now taking some pre-med classes.