SALISBURY COVE – Eight years ago, Darlene Jordan donated a small sample of her blood to help out in a search for suitable bone marrow transplants for two children with cancer in her home state of Colorado.
Her marrow tissue didn’t match the children, and as the months passed, Jordan forgot about that simple, selfless act. Then she got a letter at work, telling her that, against the odds, there was a match. In 1995 she underwent a 21/2- hour surgery to remove some of her marrow, which the body normally rebuilds.
For Renelle Pollard, a Maine schoolteacher diagnosed with leukemia, this gift from a stranger was a second chance at life. It had also meant taking a chance. The process involved breaking down her immune system to allow the transplanted marrow to take a foothold. She was given a 30 percent chance of survival.
On Saturday, Pollard and Jordan met for the first time, although they have written to each other over the years.
“It really didn’t hit me until I saw her that this is the person that saved my life and I didn’t know of a way of really thanking her,” said Pollard, 34, shortly after meeting Jordan. The women hugged and wiped away tears.
The two women met at a send-off for 10 bicyclists on a 3,000-mile trek down the East Coast intended to draw attention to the need for more donations of blood, marrow, tissues and organs. The need is clear, organizers said.
Less than 5 percent of the U.S. population donates blood. For every single patient who receives a transplant, two are added to the list needing them. Sometimes the wait is too long. In 1998, 5,000 people nationwide died while awaiting a transplant, according to statistics presented by the Five Points of Life organization and developed by the nonprofit organization LifeSouth Community Blood Centers in Gainesville, Fla.
Organizers of the Five Points of Life Ride hope to turn those statistics around. They have created an ambitious 50-day schedule for the cyclists to cover 14 states and Washington, D.C. The amateur cyclists will stop at about 60 locations along the way, including blood drives, and will make appearances at a Baltimore Orioles baseball game and at halftime during a University of Florida – Louisiana State University football game.
“It’s a sunrise to sunset ride,” said Karen M. Rhodenizer, director of Corporate Affairs for LifeSouth, noting that the ride began at sunrise on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park and will conclude Oct. 14 at the Mallory Docks in Key West where locals celebrate the sunset every day.
For John Nothnagel, 38, a hospital financial analyst in Colorado, the Five Points of Life Ride is an extension of a philosophy he learned as an economics major in college: a balance of payments. Nothnagel said he broke his neck in an accident, requiring not only a blood transfusion but also a donated bone to replace a disk in his neck. After he recovered, he started donating blood and a couple of years ago donated some of his marrow, a repayment of sorts for what he had been given.
As a child, Ed Hoovler, now 52, developed a bleeding ulcer. His white blood count plummeted and he required a transfusion of 6 pints of blood. Hoovler, a retired carpenter, participates in the ride and donates blood for another reason: He donates because he can.
He likens it to owning the only supply of water and then not sharing it with others when water is such a necessity to life.
“If you can do it, why not do it,” Hoovler said. “There’s every reason in the world to do it.” And it’s not just people who have received blood transfusions or organ transplants in the past who are doing their part or could be doing their part, cyclists said.
“You need to realize that as a healthy person, you can contribute to the community just so easily, just by donating blood,” said Peter Fort, 47, a linguist with the U.S. Department of Defense who has donated blood and blood platelets 285 times. “How many other opportunities do you have to save a life?”
Even before the official kickoff, the project was being promoted at a blood drive at the Penobscot Job Corps Saturday, one of many blood drives the American Red Cross holds to try to keep blood supplies up with demand.
It’s an increasingly difficult proposition, noted Angela Bilodeau of the Red Cross.
With people living longer, new cancer therapies requiring more blood, and more organ transplants being undertaken, she said, hospitals are requiring more and more blood.
The Job Corps blood drive also featured testing for possible marrow transplant candidates. Such testing is uncommon, but Mainers lead the New England region in terms of donations.
“We have blood drives all the time, we need more donors, but it’s very rare that we have the opportunity to offer the people of Bangor the opportunity to get tested for marrow,” Bilodeau said.
Although no specific statistics were available, Carol Ann Baldwin of the New England Marrow Donor Program said that Maine has the highest number of people who donated marrow in the New England states.