Maryville College Student donates bone marrow to save life

Without so much as a recipient name, Emilie Craven, junior, entered Vanderbilt Hospital in early October with every intention of saving a woman’s life.

After learning in the summer of 2014 that she was a possible bone marrow match for a 50 year-old woman battling acute leukemia, Emilie Craven was faced with two possible options.

She could donate and potentially save a life, or she could choose to forgo the demanding donation process and save herself time and physical pain. For her, the decision was not difficult.

“It’s a tough decision, but it was easy for me to automatically say yes because it could have been my mom or grandma,” Craven said. Coming from a family with a history of cancer on both sides, Craven never doubted her decision to donate.

After telling her mom that she had decided to become a donor, her mother broke into tears of excitement and nervousness. Unaware that his girlfriend was in the donor registry, Craven’s boyfriend, Jackson Stiles, was initially shocked by the news, but he was not surprised at her decision.

“She would do anything to help anyone no matter what the situation, and she always sees the better in people rather than their flaws. That’s just Emilie,” Stiles said.

When Craven agreed to become a donor, she knew that she would be making some sacrifices. She was aware that the process would be painful and could keep her from participating in some activities, but she looked upon the issue practically.

“I can give two weeks of pain and sickness for someone to feel a glimpse of hope at beating cancer. The two week process that I will endure is nothing to compare to what they are going through,” Craven said.

On Oct. 9 to 14, Craven remained at Vanderbilt Hospital for her peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation. PBSC is an updated method of donating bone marrow that draws blood forming cells found in bone marrow from the circulating blood stream. This process is less painful and now much more common than surgically drawing bone marrow from the hip.

Craven felt that her support system was one of the main reasons that she never got discouraged about her decision. However, when she departed for Vanderbilt, she was without one of her most important supporters.

“My mother has been with me through it all, and she is my support beam because it has just been her and I for 20 years,” Craven said. Unfortunately, out of town engagements prevented Craven’s mother from joining her at Vanderbilt during the PBSC procedure, but they promised to Skype throughout the five days.

Leading up to her donation, Craven underwent a series of procedures to ensure that she was a perfect match.

“I’ve had EKG (electrocardiogram) testing, chest X-rays, and blood drawn from me to see if I was well equipped for this procedure,” Craven said. Young and healthy donors typically between the ages of 18 to 44 are preferred for the process.

Each day, Craven received two filgrastim shots in her stomach. These shots are intended to increase the number of blood stem cells in the blood stream. On the last day, she donated her stem cells through a process called apheresis. During apheresis, blood is transferred from one arm to a machine. Once the stem cells have been separated, the blood is then returned into the opposite arm. For Craven, this process lasted around five and a half hours.

While at Vanderbilt, her boyfriend kept her company during the long days. Stiles recalled how much pain she was in by the third day.

“She could barely walk… but she kept on and nothing stopped her,” Stiles said. “I tried to keep her walking every day, and I made sure she ate because she didn’t have an appetite.”

Throughout it all, he expressed that he could not have been more proud.

Craven does not deny that there were painful moments. She brought up one particularly uncomfortable experience that occurred when her nurse turned on the apheresis machine too fast and blew out a vein. The moment made her particularly thankful for her high pain tolerance.

After her donation, Craven dealt with a few side effects of the procedure. She had some insomnia as well as bone pain during the days following, but she seemed optimistic about a quick recovery. Most donors are expected to recover within one to two full weeks after their PBSC donation.

As a member of the Maryville College softball team, Craven had to sacrifice her ability to participate in the sport during weeks following her procedure. She missed several practices along with about two weeks’ worth of work outs.

Craven’s softball coach, Leah Hampton, pointed out that Craven still wanted to participate in softball even after her donation. “We were the ones telling her no, she was not asking to rest,” Hampton said.

It seems that Craven’s caring personality translates both when she is on and off the field.

“She has the ability to look outside of her own pain or struggles and see that her encouragement is needed, and while she might be out of breath, tired, or weak, she puts the needs of those who are struggling more than her above her own,” Hampton said.

While Hampton is incredibly proud and supportive of Emilie’s donation, she is not sure it is something that just any person could take on.

“Before I would encourage anyone else on my team … or any other athlete to do this, they should be certain they are ready to make a commitment to being an excellent student, athlete, and teammate at the same time they are going through the donation process…,” Hampton said. “Craven’s ability to make it through this journey so smoothly is a credit to her strength, maturity, and proper planning.”

Due to confidentiality, Craven was unable to know any specifics about the recipient of her donation; however, a year from now she will be permitted to write a letter to the woman who received her bone marrow. The recipient is then able to choose whether they would like to open lines of communication.

“I’m not sure what I will say because that is a hard letter to write, but I do want her to know who I am,” Craven said.

Though committing to a bone marrow donation may seem daunting, Craven encourages anyone who is curious to sign up to “be the match.” Bethematch.org offers more information on the donation and matching process as well as why donating is important.

“I would do it again; that’s for sure,” Craven said.

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