SPOKANE — Just a few years ago — almost last minute — Gonzaga University student Spencer Jacobs walked over to a booth for a donor group called Be The Match.
At the time, he worked at the Hemmingson Center’s front desk and could see people entering a worldwide bone marrow registry with a simple cheek swab.
“I was sitting there watching people go by all day, and then I eventually just decided, I guess I’ll go sign up myself,” said Jacobs, 25, now a GU law student. He thought perhaps he’d never hear back.
But a couple of years later, his few minutes resulted in a bridge to health for a stranger battling leukemia. Jacobs proved to be a best-case-scenario match for Linda Rodgers in a Sept. 1, 2021, bone marrow transplant.
Rodgers isn’t that far away. Now 73, she lives in a rural area outside of Bridger, Montana. The two met for the first time April 23 in Coeur d’Alene to share dinner at the house of Rodgers’ friend, Carla Dvoracek.
Matching such donors and patients for this transplant is more complex than matching blood types. They’re matched via human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue type, according to the Be the Match organization. HLA are proteins, or markers, found on most cells in a body. The immune system uses these markers to recognize which cells belong in your body and which do not.
“Spencer and I matched 10 out of 10 markers, so it was a 100% match,” said Rodgers, who was seen by a Denver oncologist. The oncologist travels part time to see patients at a Montana cancer center.
In late August 2021, Rodgers checked into a Denver hospital, where she had radiation twice to wipe out her immune system to prepare for the bone marrow transplant.
“The bone marrow was transported to the hospital, and on Sept. 1, I got the bone marrow transplant, which just goes into the blood like a blood transfusion, almost, and settles in the bone marrow. It’s kind of a mystery to me how it makes its way there, but it does.”
Jacobs had submitted donor information for his recipient if they wanted to reach out. The registry program has patients wait a year before they can do so. Rodgers planned a trip through Coeur d’Alene after visiting a son in Oregon to meet with Jacobs.
“That was the craziest coincidence of this whole thing, that they don’t give you an opportunity to exchange information for at least a year, and then we met,” said Jacobs, who recently finished his second year of law school.
At dinner, they bonded quickly, Rodgers said.
“There was just this immediate connection — something there; I can’t explain it, our spirits maybe — and we just gave each other a huge hug,” she said.
Jacobs’ wife, Marit, joined them for the recent dinner. She works as GU’s director of development in university advancement.
“We linked up for dinner, and meeting Linda was an incredible experience,” Spencer Jacobs said.
Rodgers felt that, as well.
“Some of it is probably personality,” she said. “Spencer is very approachable, warm and loving. His wife is the same way. You know, when you meet someone, sometimes you struggle having a conversation. This wasn’t that way.
Rodgers said her health is good now, and the two plan to stay in touch.
“It was wonderful to meet him because he’s my hero. He’s the reason I’m still here.”
“I’m not cured yet, but my doctor from Denver tells me that after five years, they basically say I’m cured if it hasn’t come back. There is always the risk … but the longer I go after my transplant, the greater my odds.”
Two years ago in April, Rodgers couldn’t have said that. She traveled to see her daughter’s family in Austin, Texas, ahead of the birth of a grandchild. She helped with the two other grandchildren and got to cuddle the newborn. But on April 18, with plans to visit a son outside of Austin, she lacked enough energy to pack a suitcase.
She thought it was a heart issue. Her family took her to an emergency room. “The doctor did some blood work, and she came back in about a half an hour and said, ‘You have leukemia.’ I’ve been healthy my whole life.”
That ER doctor told her she couldn’t continue her travels. “The doctor said, ‘No, you need to go into the hospital immediately or you’ll die.’ That got my attention, of course.”
At a hospital in Billings, she started receiving blood transfusions and platelets.
“I wasn’t doing well,” she said. “After eight days in the hospital, they released me, but I had to keep going back to the cancer center every day for almost a month.
“I was so healthy before, even though I was 71, that they were encouraging me to get a bone marrow transplant. I had to really meditate on that until August, actually, because I had to go down to Denver. I had to be in the hospital for a month, then rent a place for two more months. It just seemed like a lot.”
She also had a mutation that made her leukemia more deadly. “This mutation just keeps shooting cancer cells — the white blood cells that are cancerous — into my bone marrow. It was taking over and killing me, basically.”
She took a new chemotherapy drug to slow that. She got more blood transfusions and platelets, then the radiation and transplant.
Her recovery went more smoothly. Some patients can be sick and have digestive issues if the body tries to reject the transplant. That wasn’t the case for her.
“I told Spencer when I met him that you must have really strong bone marrow and stem cells, because I never got any of that,” Rodgers said, laughing. “I was really blessed with feeling good. I have a pretty strong faith, and friends, family and my four kids were very supportive of me.
Jacobs first got an email in summer 2021 saying he was a match. His supplies for preparing arrived by mail, because it was during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are two methods of donation, nonsurgical peripheral blood stem cell donation or a bone marrow withdrawal, according to Be the Match. Spencer Jacobs used the stem cell option for Rodgers.
Donors gets shots for five days of filgrastim, a medication to increase the number of blood-forming cells in the bloodstream. For the actual donation, blood is removed through a needle on one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the needed cells. The remaining blood is returned through the other arm.
“From my perspective, it was easy and simple,” Spencer Jacobs said. “It was during COVID, so I found some of my friends who are nurses, and I went over to their houses and got the shot each day for five days.”
Be the Match paid expenses for him and his wife to fly to Seattle, and for expenses that day, to go to the organization’s center downtown for the donation. “I just sat there in a bed basically and watched TV.”
Spencer Jacobs admits not being good with needles but , he said, the donation wasn’t painful.
“There is nothing alarming or queasy about it, especially when you consider what you’re contributing to,” Jacobs said. “I would encourage people to put themselves on the registry. The chances are very low you’ll ever get to do it, but if you get to do it, it’s more rewarding than anything I’ve ever done in my life.”