EESA Research Associate Robin Lopez sits in a hospital room in Washington, D.C., this spring, preparing for a procedure that allowed him to donate bone marrow to a 60-year-old man in need.

Colleagues know EESA Research Associate Robin Lopez as someone who is very generous with his time and talents. Many are familiar, for example, with the volunteer work he does in the surrounding Bay Area community to introduce youth to potential careers in science. Now Lopez will be known for having gone so far as to help save someone’s life – by donating bone marrow. We talked with him about his decision to volunteer with the organization Be The Match.

Question: You have said that you chose to donate blood marrow because you were interested in helping someone suffering from a health condition. What interested you about donating bone marrow specifically?

Answer:  When I was 18, I was at a bone marrow donor drive at UC Berkeley with a friend. At the time, I was not at all interested. However, someone from the Be The Match organization came and spoke to me, asking if I wanted to join. I respectfully declined. His response was that I would get a free shirt if I joined.

He had me at “free!” I didn’t think much of it at the time. Over the years though, I would get monthly emails from the Be The Match registry, and I’d think: how cool is that, how other people can save lives. I never thought I would be one of them.

After losing my best friend to suicide, I promised myself that if I ever had the chance to save someone’s life, I would. That chance came 10 years after I joined the registry in November of 2017 when I got a call informing me that I was the only potential match of 20+ million individuals on the national registry for a patient in need.

It doesn’t take a scientist to acknowledge that these were extremely low odds, and that “potential” doesn’t mean I’m a 100 percent match. But these were chances I was willing to take, because it was possible that someone’s life could depend on me. I didn’t realize the impact of my actions over 10 years ago by simply joining the registry, because I wasn’t even aware of what the purpose of bone marrow donations were back then.

Question: What is the process of getting on the bone marrow registry list? What qualifies an individual to donate bone marrow?

It is actually quite simple. The details can be found on the Be The Match website. One can either join in-person during a donor drive or via requested kit online. From there, all that is needed is a swab sample from an individual’s cheek. A series of health/medical questions are asked to ensure a potential donor is eligible to joinI’m hoping to set-up a donor drive locally to encourage more people to join and potentially save a life! I set one up in Oakland this past April with the local Be The Match representatives, and 20 new people signed up, most of whom were minorities. (It has been difficult for the organization to identify matches for minority- and mixed-race patients due to relatively low enrollment by minority- and mixed-race donors.)

Question: What do you know about the recipient?

All that I know is that the recipient is a 60-year-old male, living somewhere in the U.S., and battling Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was informed that his condition was at a stage in which the bone marrow donation was urgently needed. Hence, I had quite a rushed process to make this happen, amidst travels and Ph.D. applications. Around March 2019, I will get to correspond anonymously with the recipient. And in March of 2020, we can decide to drop confidentiality and meet each other.

Question: What was involved in the process of donating the bone marrow?

Leading up to the donation, I had to undergo a series of medical appointments for physicals and blood work to ensure my body was healthy enough for a bone marrow donation, and that I was more than a “potential” match, but in fact a 100 percent match. I may have been more excited than the recipient when I was notified that I was a match! The blood work was the worst part for me, because I hate needles. Yet, again all worth it. The medical appointments were during the months of November and December, which was difficult to schedule in, due to Ph.D. applications, flying out for interviews at universities out of state, and conducting field work for the SIGMA-V project at the Sanford Underground Research Facility. I must give a special shout-out to my supervisors Tim Kneafsey and Craig Ulrich for being extremely mindful of these intense months and supporting me.

While working a mile deep underground in South Dakota with Craig, one of the drillers shared with me how his wife had received the generous donation of bone marrow. Despite the many moving parts in my life at the time, it was reassuring to hear a first-hand experience from someone who had benefited from a donor. I was scheduled for a bone marrow donation on March 20, 2018 – four days after I was scheduled to take my comprehensive exam for my Master’s degree at San Jose State University. As I was preparing for my exam in Water Resources Engineering, I was also mentally preparing myself for what to expect a few short days later.

I flew out to Washington D.C. on March 19 with my mother. The next morning, I was at Georgetown University Hospital being prepped for the procedure. Rightfully, I was nervous as I’ve never had surgery before. But everything went smoothly. The operation took about one-and-a-half hours. I remember waking up, in complete shock that I actually went through with it.

All the nurses were wonderful and took care of me as I stayed overnight. The next day I was discharged. During my travels back home to California, I had to be transported by wheelchair because I was unable to walk for several days.  I was in a lot of pain, and had to take medication throughout the flight home. I was thankful to have my mother there, to comfort me and remind me that what I did was generous and kind. Since then, I have been in recovery – even to this day. I still experience some slight back pain, which has been difficult, because it’s limited the amount of work I can perform, and the opportunities for field work which I desperately want to participate in again. Yet, I’m trusting science and medicine on this one, and taking the doctor’s advice to be patient and take care of myself.

Question: I see that you’ve recommended that others sign up to be a bone marrow donor.  Tell me why you think it’s important to encourage others to do so.

Yes, I highly encourage others to join if they can! Be The Match has hooked me up with a donor link: so I can keep track of the level of influence I’ve had in encouraging people to join. It’s important that others seriously consider joining or motivate young people in their family to join, to help save lives. It only takes one person to save a life.