A USC Board of Trustees member and the assistant director of sports medicine for the University of Tennessee football team met for the first time this weekend, as the Vols came to town to take on the Gamecocks.
But the two have a connection that began over a year ago – and it’s much deeper than a board member having dinner with an alumnus of the Arnold School of Public Health.
Trustee J. Egerton Burroughs was diagnosed about two years ago with acute leukemia. His doctors at Duke University Hospital told him he had two options – chemotherapy, which might extend his life up to 18 months, or, if he qualified and a compatible donor was found, a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant that carried some risk but could provide a cure.
“To me, that was a no-brainer. I opted for the transplant,” Burroughs said.
Luckily, a donor was found on the registry who was a match for Burroughs. And although the pool of potential donors spans the country, this donation was coming from someone with a South Carolina connection. Alex Medina, who earned his master’s degree in advanced athletic training from USC in 2015, would provide the life-saving stem cell donation.
Medina was in grad school at USC when he and his Arnold School classmates volunteered to be swabbed and added to the Be The Match registry. The national marrow donor program connects patients with matching donors for transplants.
In August 2021, he opened an email saying he matched with a patient with leukemia, and information was provided for further tests and screening.
“As they go through the selection process of donors, they pick the donor that matches the most to the patient that needs it. So, I just so happened to match really well with this patient and they scheduled the donation date,” Medina says.
After taking a medication that helps stimulate bone marrow and increase his white blood cell count, Medina flew from Knoxville to Cincinnati where he spent a few hours undergoing peripheral blood stem cell donation. The process is similar to donating plasma, with blood removed through a needle in one arm, cycled through a machine that separates out the stem cells, and the remaining blood is then returned to the donor in the other arm. When medical professionals have collected the correct amount of stem cells, a courier transports the bag to the patient awaiting the transplant.
"I flew back to Knoxville and carried on with work. The month of August for me is the busiest time because of preseason football camp,” he says.
Meanwhile, back at Duke, Burroughs had finished the screening and preparation process for the transplant.
“Once they find out you have a match, they juice you up really good with a very, very high rate of chemo to make sure that every cell in your body that could be infected with this cancer is dead,” he says. “Then they give you the transplant, which is done with an IV bag. It took maybe 30 minutes.”
After the transplant, a patient continues having blood transfusions until the body starts making bone marrow. Just over a year after the transplant, Burroughs is cancer free and says he feels “great.” And, because the transplant was successful, Burroughs and Medina were permitted to contact each other after the one-year mark.
“He sent me a nice email introducing himself and saying ‘thank you’ and we started talking via email and came to find out he's from South Carolina and is on the board of trustees at the university,” Medina says. “So that was pretty cool to see a place that I'm really familiar with where I spent two really good years. I just kind of felt like it was really a small world.”
Burroughs said he was anxious to connect with his donor: “I wanted to thank him for me being alive. You can't make it without the donor. And once Alex and I started communicating, we found we had so many things in common. He was a graduate of one of our top programs. I was a trustee at the university when he graduated. Where I sit at commencement, I watch the graduates come by. So, I might have seen him come by.”
While at USC, Medina was a graduate assistant working with the Gamecocks football team, and went on to athletic training positions with the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL, James Madison University and the University of Tennessee, where he is an athletic trainer and assistant director of sports medicine for football.
Burroughs says he wants to work with Medina and others to encourage people to be donors – of blood, bone marrow, blood stem cells and platelets.
“When you have a bone marrow transplant or chemo treatments, the bone marrow is affected or eradicated and the patient is dependent on blood transfusions. It's critical that people understand that blood is in short supply,” Burroughs says. “We urge folks to donate blood through the Red Cross. And the only way that people can have these transplants is with donors.”
For Medina, the addition of more people to the donor registry means there will be a better chance that patients fighting leukemia or other illnesses can have a chance at a full recovery. He says his mother, who was a nurse, had two bouts of cancer, one in the 1990s and one in the past three years. She died in September, knowing that her son had helped save a life.
“My mom was a strong influence on me personally. So it was kind of rewarding to tell my mom that I had matched with somebody and he had a good outcome. She was really happy about it.”