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Defying the Odds: Taking "One in a Million" to a Whole New Level

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Every year upwards of 6,000 people search for a bone marrow donor who, potentially—hopefully—can save their lives. The odds of an unrelated person being that match are about one in 20,000. Unless you’re Erik Poulin.

In 2010, the UNH senior had his cheek swabbed at a bone marrow drive. Within weeks he learned he was a match for someone suffering from cancer. After undergoing additional testing he found out the recipient wasn’t going forward with the transplant at that time. Poulin was disappointed but hoped the patient would call on him in the future.

Six months later, when the call from the bone marrow registry came, it wasn’t the one he’d expected.

“They told me I was a match for someone else. The woman on the phone said, ‘I don’t know what to say. I usually have a script to follow but this has never happened before—that someone matched two people.’ You can be on the registry for years and never get a call. What are the odds I’d get one twice in six months?” the civil engineering major says.

About one in 400 million, it turns out.

Bone marrow is a spongy tissue found inside bones that contains stem cells produced by the body's blood cells. Marrow transplants are used to treat people whose own stem cells have been destroyed by chemotherapy and radiation during cancer treatment. The ideal donor is a blood relative. When that’s not possible, patients look to marrow registries.

Poulin had the procedure done at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. A few weeks beforehand, he went in for preoperative testing: a complete physical, an EKG, and more blood work. The process was explained again, he was shown the room he would be in, and asked if he was certain he wanted to go forward.

“If I’d hesitated, they wouldn’t have gone any further because to get a patient ready for the transplant, they have to destroy their immune system,” Poulin says.

For five days before the transplant, Poulin had injections of a drug that increases stem cell production. It also causes flu-like symptoms and fatigue. “My bones ached. I felt like I’d run a marathon,” Poulin says.”But it was a small price to pay.”

During the transplant, blood was transfused from a vein in his arm to a machine that filtered out the stem cells. Then the blood was returned to him through his other arm. The harvest typically takes between four to six hours. For Poulin, it took eight.

“I stayed on a little longer so I could give extra,” Poulin says. “That way they can store it in case she needs a boost later on.”

She: That’s about all he knows about the recipient of his bone marrow other than she is 65 and has leukemia.

“If I’m lucky, further down the road I’ll get to know more. I’d love to meet her,” the Hampstead native says. “I feel pretty blessed that I had the opportunity to help someone. It’s a great feeling.”
One-way communication can occur after six months. In a year, if both parties are willing, they could meet.

Poulin says when his older brother learned he was a match for two people, he told him to go buy a lottery ticket.

“The second thing he said was, ‘maybe I should get on the registry, too, in case it runs in the family,’” Poulin says. “I told him to do it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. This woman could be someone’s mother. Whether the person is two or 62—it doesn’t matter if it helps someone.”