Texas State sophomore gives gift of stem cells this holiday season
By Alec Jennings
University News Service
December 15, 2010
On Friday, Dec. 10, Kelby Wenger, a Texas State University-San Marcos sophomore from Denton who admits to being more than a bit squeamish at the sight of blood and needles, took her last final of the semester a week early before heading to Dallas to begin a grueling regiment of shots in preparation for serving a purpose higher than herself.
The injections are among the beginning steps towards donating her stem cells to a total stranger with few, if any, remaining options in a life-threatening battle against leukemia.
"Without this process, the doctors say he has zero percent chance of living," Wenger said. "Even with this, there's no guarantee."
Wenger, a former high school valedictorian and a dean's list business management major sporting a 3.9 grade point average describes the path that took her to this decision as one that was meant to be.
"I'm pretty needle shy and afraid of things," she said. "I'm a Christian and the reason I'm doing this is that it's the right thing to do. If it's someone's life on the line, I need to stand up and help get this done."
Telling her story at a coffee shop near campus, Wenger's bright eyes light up; her arms wave and gesture wildly, giving her the appearance of someone high on gallons of coffee when she has not even consumed a drop. A proud, active member of Campus Crusade for Christ, the devout Christian describes her mission as one of love that began with attending a campus event around Easter of 2010.
The event featured an illusionist, but he had a personal story that deeply moved her. It was a story wherein he was saved by a stem cell donation from an anonymous donor. The following day, the National Marrow Donor Program had a booth in the Quad on campus, promoting their cause and recruiting potential donors. At first glance, Wenger passed by, letting her needle-shy tendencies take precedence over what she knew was the right thing to do, but she could not forget the story she had heard only a day before: A person signed up and it saved his life.
After an initial cheek swab on campus to collect DNA, weeks passed and Wenger, knowing the slim odds, assumed she would never hear from anyone.
"The chances of being selected are slim, but if I am I shouldn't let that opportunity go," she remembers thinking.
After the initial information that was gained from the swab, however, they contacted her for more tests to gain further information.
"Three weeks later I got a call. They said 'as it turns out you're the best match for this guy.'"
A miracle is evident, as Wenger sees it, stretching far and wide: from her receipt of a prestigious scholarship that brought her to Texas State in the first place, to the incredible odds of being a match so perfect that she was selected for donation. Were all these things not to fall in just the right place, she said, she easily could be somewhere else not doing this at all. Furthermore, as a small, bright-eyed young woman, focused on the things that occupy college-aged people, she was a closer match to the 63-year-old, 250-pound-plus recipient than even his closest family members.
For the procedure, a series of shots and treatments will give her a surplus of the vital stem cells, while the recipient's immune system will be diminished to the point of being nearly gone, so it doesn't fight her cells as foreign intruders. If the procedure is successful, much of the recipient's own chemistry will be changed, adapted to a chemistry quite similar to hers.
"He gets my stem cells; eventually they will assimilate: his blood will become my blood type; he'll even be allergic to what I am—If he has a cat, that will be a sad day for him," Wenger jokes.
The regiment of injections and other treatments, along with the actual procedure of donating the stem cells will give Wenger a variety of undesirable symptoms, from those resembling the flu, to those that apparently only someone who has experienced the rigors of stem cell donation can fully understand. The process will give her an abundance of stem cells to prepare her, and she will also probably have to go through the procedure twice due to the disparity in size between herself and the recipient.
"I'll be kind of like a Coke bottle all shaken up. They said it makes your bones really heavy—I don't even know what that means."
The symptoms and procedure will occupy much of her Christmas break, forcing her to prepare for the investment of time and energy, as well as scheduling her finals a week early.
"All of my finals are this week—I'm very busy. [My professors] have all been very understanding. They've been super accommodating."
She will be doing the procedure in Dallas to put her close to her family and ever-important support system critical to her success.
"It's going to be good. I might be a little bit scared, but I'm certain it will be okay. I have all my family and friends here for me, supporting me," she says. "It's amazing to see how awesome the people around me are and how encouraging they are."
She quickly emphasized, however, that this process is not about her at all.
"The reason I'm doing this is despite all my fear and all that could go wrong, is that I've experienced love. I don't know anything about the person, but I love him."