Shelby Sommer probably didn’t anticipate actually saving somebody’s life when, while attending the Air Force Academy, he registered with the National Marrow Donor Program.
So many of us instantly register as an organ donor with DMV because we instinctively want to help one another – but our lives, or lack of opportunity, seem to get in the way of registering as donors with other causes.
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“When I was in the military I was just donating blood,” said Sommer. “Then the Red Cross people asked if I wanted to check the little box to become a bone marrow donor, and I said ‘sure.’”
And just like that, a few years later he had saved the life Rachel Lyn Farfsing, a two-year-old girl from Ohio suffering from leukemia.
At just 14 months old, Rachel was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. Doctor’s then treated Rachel with an eight-month regimen of chemotherapy, hoping it would subside. But the cancer eventually returned, this time in the form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Her only chance of survival depended on a bone marrow transplant. As Rachel’s parents and other family member failed to provide a correct match, they looked to the National Marrow Donor Program.
Searching through the registry’s database of six million donors, they found Sommer.
“I had the best possible match for her,” said Sommer from his home in Santa Clarita.
After leaving the military, Sommer met his wife Melissa while living in North Hollywood. They then moved to Santa Clarita, where Melissa’s family lived and where Sommer would partake in his attempt to save a child he’d never met.
Doctors inspect eight characteristics when comparing the bone marrow of a donor and patient. Sommer and Rachel’s marrow miraculously linked in seven categories.
“The doctors actually don’t want a perfect eight out of eight match because it means you’re most likely going to be just as liable to the cancer cells that will take over your cells,” he said. “They actually want somebody’s marrow which is a little bit off so it has to fight to survive.”
After taking the requisite blood tests at the Saint Joseph Hospital of Orange in Irvine, Sommer waited four months before undergoing the transplant, in the dark as to Rachel’s situation.
In fact, both the Sommers and the Farfsings were asked to refrain from any contact with each other for more than a year.
“I didn’t know anything about it other than there was a two-year-old girl with leukemia. I didn’t know that they were in Cincinnati,” he said.
On October 6, 2008, Sommer’s bone marrow was harvested in Irvine. During a four-hour operation where they poked into various spots of his hip bones, carefully extracting the needed marrow.
Meanwhile, Rachel waited back in Ohio, recently having all of her bone marrow and blood cells depleted in anticipation of a life-saving transplant.
On October 7, Sommer’s marrow was injected into Rachel.
Now four years old, the four-year-old preschooler is symptom free with Sommer’s marrow proving the needed elixir.
Sommer finally met Rachel and her family last weekend. He said he knows they will have an everlasting communication and relationship.
“That was all the information I had. How could you say ‘no’ to a two-year-old girl?”