John McCormick doesn’t always remember on the spot how or when he met Ryan Rothman, but he knows why they became friends.
As second-year medical students at Drexel University’s College of Medicine, they spend a lot of time around each other, studying in the same library on Drexel’s Queen Lane campus. McCormick, after recalling that he actually met Rothman through a monthly board game night through a mutual friend, says he could tell from the start that Rothman was a good person — like most of the compassionate people who enter medical school to become doctors and ultimately help people.
And like most of his friends, when a registration drive through Be The Match — which manages the largest and most diverse bone marrow registry in the world — came to campus, McCormick encouraged Rothman to sign up. So he did, and he heeded the same type of donation call which, years before, had saved McCormick’s own life.
McCormick received a donation of stem-cell-rich umbilical cord blood transplant after being diagnosed with leukemia when he was 21, and Rothman donated stem cells through peripheral blood collection to an awaiting recipient he was matched up with through Be The Match.
“To describe to someone in person, describe to Ryan, what it means to know that you're about to die or that you could die and that someone else has stepped forward to offer a part of themselves — like a puzzle piece — so that you can get a second chance… I just want to express to Ryan how much a second chance means and how grateful I am and that his donor will be to live on Earth for just a little while longer,” McCormick said.
Though Rothman can’t remember the seeds of their friendship either, he does remember the day about a year ago when the Be The Match drive came to campus and, on McCormick’s encouragement, he got the easy cheek swab to register. Rothman figured he had no real reason not to do it, and there was a good chance he wouldn’t match up with anyone. With his busy school and studying schedule, that might be a good thing.
But then Rothman got the call last December — a stem cell donation from him could save an unidentified woman with leukemia. And although the procedure and preparation would take place right around the time of his big United States Medical Licensing Examination Step 1 exam, he knew sacrificing the time was well worth it.
“Even though it was a chunk of my time, just the small amount of time that I’d need to dedicate would be so worth it, and would potentially save someone's life with minimal effort on my part,” he said.
Rothman also had another Drexel friend looking out for him during the procedure. Peter M. Clifford, DO, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the College of Medicine, actually completed Rothman’s stem cell collection procedure.
“Ryan was an exemplary patient and donor,” Clifford said. “He did a great job and we got a great cell product from him, ultimately sent it off and it went to the recipient and they received it.”
Because Rothman went through the peripheral blood procedure, he said the ordeal was virtually painless. It involved some preliminary screenings, and then the injection of Neupogen five days before the collection, as the drug allows the stem cells to leave the bone marrow and travel into the blood for easier collection. After a five-hour procedure and a two-hour nap, Rothman was good as new.
“Dr. Clifford was there with me. … He kept checking in on me, making sure I knew what was going on and what's going to happen in the future. So, yeah, overall it was a very easy experience,” Rothman said.
McCormick said it’s his experience that most people who think about stem cell collection assume it is an extremely painful procedure involving big needles and bone marrow collection. It’s this misconception as well as others that make it hard for some patients in need of stem cells to find a match due to a lack of diversity in the donation pool. McCormick, for instance, is mixed-race, which is why he had to undergo the less-common cord blood transplant. Even those donors weren’t a complete match.
“As you become more unique, it becomes more unlikely that you're going to find that perfect match,” Clifford said.
“I'm always trying to encourage — especially if you're a minority or if you're mixed race — you should try and see if you can donate,” McCormick added.
McCormick will likely keep encouraging friends to register every time Be The Match comes to campus. Rothman will likely join him. Until then, the two students will continue on business-as-usual — studying and looking forward to starting their surgical rotations this summer.
Based on his experience with leukemia and his own transplant, McCormick said he plans to pursue a specialty in HemOnc, or the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of blood diseases (hematology) and cancer (oncology).
“I think being in that environment turns a lot of people away,” he said of the specialty. “I remember a lot of the patients on the floor were like, ‘Why would you ever want to come back here?’ But for me I had a life changing experience there. It was, in a lot of ways, where I became a new person, where I learned about compassion. It completely changed the way I saw the world and the way the world works.”
Rothman doesn’t know what specialty he’ll go into yet, and is just looking forward to getting through the rest of his time at Drexel and then applying for a residency.
“And then I'll be a full-fledged, real-Life doctor, hopefully,” he said with a laugh.