Yale football staff produces 3 bone marrow donors

Yale football staff produces 3 bone marrow donors

Published Mar. 7, 2015 8:29 a.m. ET

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) Finding a match for someone who needs a bone marrow transplant can be like searching for a needle in a haystack - unless you are looking at Yale University.

An unlikely three members of the football staff, who were all roommates, have donated bone marrow along with some two dozen others from Yale, where advocates say they are finding an unusually high match rate.

Chris Gennaro, the school's director of football operations, donated in the fall of 2012. His assistant, Zach Wigmore, was notified that he too was a match for a cancer patient a few months later. Outside linebackers coach Paul Rice soon got a similar call. And a player, center John Oppenheimer, also became a donor that year.

''You could absolutely say that this team saved four lives,'' said Gennaro, who was in Washington this week, lobbying Congress for more money to fund the national Be the Match registry, which puts volunteers into a database to determine if they might have the same protein markers as someone who needs a donation.


About 12,000 people need transplants each year, and matches are found for just over half of those, according to Chad Ramsey, director of legislative relations for Be the Match. Only about one in 540 people who get their cheeks swabbed to become part of the database end up being linked to a patient.

The odds that four people from the same school would become donors are much worse, and the chance that three people living in the same house would match three different patients, astronomical.

''The doctors were pretty much floored,'' said Rice, a former Yale captain and linebacker.

Ramsey says colleges are the ideal spot for registration drives, because of the youth and diversity of the population.

Yale is one of the more active campuses for bone marrow registration. Rice first took part as a player in a 2009 registration drive for Mandi Schwartz, a hockey player who never found a match. She died of acute myeloid leukemia in 2011.

''She and her family made such and impact on the Yale community,'' said head football coach Tony Reno, whose entire team has become part of the registry. ''And people who come to Yale want to be involved in something much bigger than themselves. That is really part of the fabric of Yale.''

Since that first drive, more than 4,500 people at Yale have registered and more than two dozen of those have ended up donating bone marrow. Another drive is set for April 16.

''Just adding the sheer numbers that they have added to the registry will lead to some matches,'' Ramsey said. ''But the rate of matches there goes beyond science. We've never seen anything like it.''

Gennaro, who actually joined the registry while playing football at the University of Maine, said the donation process takes several hours but is painless.

In most cases, doctors no longer take marrow by sticking a needle into the hip bone. Instead, they use a process in which they take the cells they need directly from a patient's blood as it circulates through a machine.

''It's like donating blood,'' he said. ''It may even be easier.''

It costs about $100 to add a name to the registry, which now includes more than 12 1/2 million names. The federal government provides about $23 million a year to help add people to the registry, assist patients in navigating the system and fund research. Ramsey said Be the Match officials are hoping to avoid budget cuts and maybe even get a bump, thanks to the testimony of people such as Gennaro.

He considers what the Yale football team has done to be heroic. Rice said he doesn't.

''To me it just seems that you are lucky enough to be in that position, you owe it to humanity to enter the registry and then, if you have a chance, go donate,'' he said.