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Austin Luera
Austin Luera, a freshman at the University of South Carolina, donated bone marrow to help a young boy fighting leukemia.

A chance to save a life

By Megan Sexton, msexton@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-1421

The phone call came in September, informing Austin Luera that his bone marrow appeared to be a viable match for an 8-year-old boy fighting leukemia.

The timing wasn’t great: Luera was a freshman at the University of South Carolina, far from his Towson, Md., home, balancing his Army ROTC responsibilities and a full load of challenging classes.

“But I couldn’t say no to that little kid,” the 19-year-old Luera says. “How could I?”

So over Thanksgiving break he found himself in Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, having bone marrow extracted through 30 tiny holes in his pelvic bone. He’ll know in the next several months whether the transplant was successful, and hopes someday to meet the child who received his gift of life.

He says he’d willingly go through the surgery again – and he’s encouraging others to become bone marrow donors, too.

The story began last May, when Luera was a senior at Loyola Blakefield, a Jesuit school just outside of Baltimore. A “senior swab day” was held in honor of a student at the school who had died of leukemia the previous year. Luera was among the 70 students who had the inside of their cheeks swabbed for cell samples, with the details entered into the bone marrow transplant registry.

Marrow, the substance found inside bones, resembles blood and contains blood stem cells, which produce red and white blood cells and platelets that are important for carrying oxygen, fighting infections and helping to control bleeding. Thousands of adults and children need bone marrow transplants each year to survive, and the transplants often must come from an unrelated person who has a compatible tissue type.

Luera says he didn’t think much about being added to the registry until his mother called him while he was eating dinner at the Bates dining hall, telling him he was a possible match for a child with cancer. The family knows the challenges faced by children with cancer, with Luera having lost a 1-year-old cousin to cancer a decade ago. His family has since been involved in fundraising efforts to help the families of children with cancer.

A whirl of activity followed the news that Luera may be a viable match, including blood testing at USC’s Student Health Center and a trip to Washington for additional screenings.

He turned out to be a 99.9 percent match.

Over Thanksgiving break, he checked into the hospital for the surgery, where 1,000 milliliters of marrow was removed through 15 holes on each side of his pelvic bone. He spent one night in the hospital and was sore for a couple of days. But he says he gladly lived through a few days with a small amount of pain, knowing what the boy receiving the bone marrow had been experiencing as he battled cancer.

Luera, an exercise science major, was back on campus the week after Thanksgiving, and is working his way back to a normal workout schedule as part of his participation in Army ROTC. He hopes to someday fly military helicopters.

His decision to donate bone marrow to help has been noticed by others around campus, including those at ROTC.

“He is leaps and bound as far as maturity and generosity ahead of most students that age. As a 19-year-old guy he’s portrayed a lot of the military values already. And not just as a cadet, but as a human being,” says M. Adam Sarver, Luera’s Army ROTC instructor at USC. “I can’t speak higher of him than that.”

Privacy issues prohibit Luera from knowing much about the boy who received his bone marrow. Luera has written him a letter, telling him how brave he is to battle cancer. He hopes to eventually meet the boy, but that decision is up to the patient and his family.

“When I got the call I didn’t even understand the magnitude of it. But how can you turn down a chance to attempt to save a life?” he says. “That would be awesome, to meet him and get to know him.”

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Posted: 12/18/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 01/03/13 @ 11:28 AM | Permalink

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