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Inspirational Vandenberg Women: JSpOC chief was “the match”

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - -- Editor's note: This is the first story in a four-part series on inspirational Vandenberg women.

On July 31, 2000, a middle-of-the-night phone call would irrevocably change the lives of two strangers.

"Anytime you get a phone call in the middle of the night it's normally not good news," said Chief Master Sgt. April Smurda, Joint Space Operations Center superintendent. "But when I picked up the phone it was the National Bone Marrow Center and they said, 'You have been identified as a potential match for someone who needs a bone marrow transplant.' I didn't even realize what the marrow center meant...it had been so long ago that I didn't even remember registering."

In 1994, Smurda had joined members from her office at March Air Base, Calif. in participating in a local bone marrow drive. Her cheeks were swabbed with q-tips and the genetic information collected was stored on a database with other potential bone marrow donors.

That swab taken 20 years-ago ignited a course of events that would call this active duty servicemember to take the Air Force core value of, "Service before Self," to a whole new level and save a stranger's life.

According to the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program website, military personnel and their dependents, DoD civilian employees, Reservists, and Coast Guard and National Guard members register with a cheek swab and become potential marrow and stem cell donors.

"We have recruited more than 760,000 individuals to fight against blood cancer and other fatal diseases," states www.salutetolife.org, the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program website. "Each year, more than 12,000 people are diagnosed with diseases that require an infusion of stem cells; more than 70% of patients are unable to find an appropriate match within their own family and will require an unrelated donor."

Smurda wasn't the only unrelated potential match to be a donor for the sick individual.

"The marrow center said that I had been identified as one out of 10 potential donors for someone who needs a bone marrow transplant," Smurda said. "They also told me that the person needing the transplant was female, had a type of leukemia and was less than one year old."

Even though the chief was identified as a match, she wasn't obligated to be a donor.

"It was very hard to sleep that night because of the opportunity and the thought of being able to save someone's life was just amazing and overwhelming," Smurda said. "They [the marrow center] also advise that you don't have to go through with it, even though I was listed a potential match, and I could back-out at any time."

Backing-out wasn't an option for Smurda. She immediately went to the Ramstein Air Base laboratory in Germany to initiate the next round of testing to see if she was the match for a very sick baby girl.

"I went to the Ramstein lab and they took eight viles of blood from one arm and seven from the other, which was pretty wild," Smurda said. "The marrow center told me that from those vials they would be able to determine in about six weeks who of the 10 potential donors would be the closest match. Just around six weeks later I got a phone call telling me that I was the closest match."

Although the case worker relayed more information in that phone call, the magnitude of what she had just learned set in and drowned out the rest of the conversation.

"After the caseworker told me I was the best match, she kept talking, but I really wasn't hearing anything she was saying," Smurda said. "I just kept thinking I have the opportunity to give someone a second chance at life."

After more blood tests and a physical, Smurda was medically cleared to donate and the transplant date was set.

"On the morning of Oct. 25, 2000, I underwent surgery and had about one pint of bone marrow extracted from my body. I was released from the hospital the next day and overall it was a rather simple and painless procedure for me. However, it was very emotional because I kept wondering if my bone marrow was going to help her."

Though the patients are protected by confidentiality, the program creates a way for the donor and the patient to communicate anonymously.

"For the next year, I exchanged anonymous letters and cards with the patient's family. They updated me on her status and told me she was progressing well. Up until this point her family had only known me as a 28 year-old-female with O positive blood, and I only knew she was a baby with leukemia."

However, on the one-year anniversary of the surgery, the family and donor are given the option to lift the anonymity and both parties jumped at the chance.

"At the one year point we were allowed to reveal our identities and we then started exchanging more emails, letters and phone calls that have progressed ever since," said Smurda. "Since that time, I've kept up with her progress and I'm always hoping that the news her mom gives me is good news. When this process first started she was a stranger...living half-way across the world. But now there is a bond between us that can't be broken. Alyson is alive because of the gift I was so privileged to give to her. My blood flows through her body. We are definitely not strangers anymore."

When most think of military members putting their lives on the line for the American people, visuals of gun smoke and up-armored vehicles pop into their heads. Through her process, Smurda was able to demonstrate that a military member saving lives doesn't have to be limited to the battlefield.

"Over the past 14 years I've had the opportunity to watch Alyson grow into a bright, vibrant and energetic teenager and have gained her family as an extended family of my own," Smurda said. "You always hear people pose the question, 'Can one person make a difference?' and I am here to tell you the answer is a resounding, 'yes.'"

To learn more about the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program visit the website www.salutetolife.org.