My Exciting Life as a Bone Marrow Donor

March 03

Alexis St. John
Alexis St. John is a bone marrow donor living in South Dakota. She’s a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. She loves to travel and live life to the fullest.

Life is for living. It's for having new experiences, meeting new people, and exploring new places. It's not something I take for granted. So when I found out I had the opportunity to give someone a new lease on life, I said yes right away.

My name is Alexis St. John and I am a bone marrow donor.

For a long time I didn't even know that bone marrow donation was a thing! Growing up in South Dakota I had always donated blood so I understood the power that giving of yourself can have in someone else's life. Scrolling through Facebook one day back in 2017 I saw an ad explaining how one could sign up to the bone marrow registry - a simple cheek swab sent to a lab determines if you're a match for someone at that time. And if you aren't, you remain on the list until you are in your 60s, so the potential exists that you could save someone's life in the future!

I signed right up, received my kit in the mail, swabbed my mouth and sent off my sample. What I learned from the experience was that I was also serving a hugely underrepresented community - Native Americans. As a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe I learned Native Americans, much like in other areas of medicine, were in great need of donors. Some would look at that as a great responsibility, but I see it as a great opportunity. An opportunity to help others, to add one more point to the scoreboard.

It also felt like a challenge that could lead to a new experience and as I mentioned before, I love having new experiences. I get that adventurous spirit from my mom. She's my best friend and one of the kindest, most caring people I know. Being from a family of 11 siblings she understands what it means to give back to your family and community.

To be honest? I had totally forgotten that I'd signed up for the registry in 2017. So when the phone rang this past September and I was told I was a match, I was surprised but not concerned. Even though I had no idea what was going to happen in the process, it sounded like an adventure! An adventure that could save another person's life.

The nurses on our reservation in Sisseton were amazed. "You're the first person from here to do anything like this," they told me, their voices equally excited and concerned. But I knew I was in good hands. I had my mom by my side, ready to help me go through the process.

But first, I had to travel to New York City to do a physical in order to determine if my body could handle the transfer. A whirlwind trip to NYC and back in 24 hours confirmed that I would be good to go. I flew back home and prepared myself for the donation process itself in January.

Unfortunately, an adventure always has an unexpected detour, and this one was no different. The day I was supposed to get my initial injections South Dakota was rocked by some incredible snowstorms. As the snow built the news began to talk about the state shutting down all major roads. This was a major problem because time was of the essence. The person waiting for my donation was in need, and if we couldn't meet this appointment today, the entire process was going to be delayed. In a situation where lives are at stake, time is the most important resource. And I was not about to be the person that takes time away from someone else!

So my mom and I packed up and hit the road. Our destination was Avera McKennen Hospital in Sioux Falls, a two and a half hour drive away. As we made our way onto the Interstate the snow picked up even more. It was a total whiteout on the road. Even my adventurous mother was telling me that we could wait on this trip if we had to. But in my heart, I knew that wasn't an option.

We buckled down as the snow continued to pound the roads. The fastest we could go was 45 mph. It felt like we were trapped in a snowglobe that people won't stop shaking. But we made it! Four hours later we pulled into Sioux Falls and, I am not kidding, the state shut down all major roads 10 minutes after we got to town. Everyone everywhere was looking out for us that night. 

The first round of injections were a success and, though I had a headache for a couple days afterward, it was nothing that stopped me from going about my day. Plus, I had the added feeling of knowing we conquered some pretty crazy odds to make the appointment. All that was left was one more trip to New York for the final donation five days later.

While I was a little nervous I knew I'd be okay because for this trip DKMS flew me and my mom both to NYC! Mom had never seen the Big Apple, only read about it or saw it in movies. And here we were, our big medical adventure leading us to one of the coolest cities on the planet. We were only in town for a day or two but it was so great to see the excitement on mom's face, finally getting to experience New York. 

Even though I had done one round of injections, the rest of the process was still brand new to me. But the only thing that was going through my mind was that I couldn't wait to help this person in need. My mom stayed right by my side through the whole thing. I love her so much for being my adventure partner. Growing up she was the adventurer and I was the partner and it really is a special feeling to be able to be that for her. The staff at DKMS were incredible as well. They answered all our questions, they took incredible care of us, and when we were done, I got to ring the bell in the office that lets everyone know another successful donation has been made!

Not only that, but my mom's birthday was the day after my donation in New York! That meant we were able to spend her special day together, doing what we love best - having a new life experience.

Now, how would you celebrate a whirlwind month where you go from finding out you'd signed up for something years before, to being flown to New York to save someone's life? If you are me and my mom, you'd head to the Super Bowl parade for your favorite football team, the Kansas City Chiefs. We are diehard Chiefs fans and what an amazing gift that they also won the Super Bowl right after all this wild activity in our own lives.

That parade felt extra special that day. It wasn't just a celebration of a football win. It felt like a celebration of everything that had happened in our lives in the past few weeks. My mom and I spent the day cheering not just for the Chiefs, but for ourselves as well.

And this is what I mean by life being for living! Imagine I'd never clicked on that ad in 2017. Imagine my mom had not shown me what life can offer when you keep yourself open to new ideas and experiences. I may not have even made it to that victory parade, sure. But the bigger thing in my mind is that someone else might not have even made it to the day of the big game. Now, that person has their life back. They have the opportunity to adventure. They have the opportunity to explore, to love, to taste, to feel everything there is to offer in this world. That's not something I take for granted and I'm sure they won't either.

I also understand that there is an even bigger spotlight on my donation because of the lack of Native American donors. If you are Native American and are reading this, we need donors. As a minority community in this country it's important that we take care of each other, even if we don't ever know the person we're taking care of.

Because sometimes, in saving a life, you wind up making your own that much more exciting.