Oncology Nurse Decides to ‘Be the Match’ for Anonymous Pediatric Patient

Northwestern Medicine
Cancer Care/Oncology February 28, 2022
For people with life-threatening blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, a bone marrow transplant may help save their lives. Some are able to match with family members for a blood stem cell transplant, while others must rely on the generosity of a complete stranger.

Mary Molloy, MSN, RN, ONC, NEA-BC, learned she was a potential donor match for a 16-year-old female with leukemia. Though Molloy knew nothing else about the patient, she decided to donate blood stem cells. Molloy is an oncology nurse at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital Cancer Center in DeKalb. She signed up to be a donor four or five years ago through Be The Match, an organization that manages bone marrow registries and donors. It can take years for someone to be a potential match for a patient.

“The coordinator told me that only 8% of people who are matched actually go through with the donation,” Molloy said. “If this is what I can do to help somebody or be their best chance for survival, I thought, ‘How can I say no?’ I can’t say no to this.”

Some types of blood cancers can be treated with a patient’s own bone marrow stem cells. With leukemia, the cancer lives within the bone marrow. Healthy blood cells from a donor are needed to help take over the damaged cells. The process of donating has many steps and is a serious commitment, but that did not deter Molloy from donating.

“When Mary told me that she was going to be a stem cell donor for someone she did not know, I was overwhelmed by such a selfless act,” said Karen Smiley, Molloy’s manager and director of Operations for Kishwaukee Hospital Cancer Center. “Mary has been in oncology her entire career and knows the importance and struggles of patients awaiting stem cell donation. I am truly honored to work with someone so compassionate and self-sacrificing.”

It took about two months for Molloy to work through the process before donating on December 6, 2021. She had to give herself injections a few days prior to the donation to raise her stem cell production and white blood cells.

“The biggest side effect from the injections was bone pain and just feeling really sore for a few days,” Molloy said. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is how our patients feel every day.’”

For the donation, two intravenous lines were inserted into Molloy’s arms and attached to a machine that pulled the blood out of her veins, filtered out the immature stem cells, and then returned the blood to her body. The process typically takes six to eight hours.

“I was definitely a little tired for a couple days and had some sore joints,” Molloy said. “Your hips tend to hurt because that’s where a significant amount of your bone marrow is, but by the end of the week, I felt like my old self again.”

Although donating her stem cells involved many steps and was a time commitment, Molloy said she would do it again.

“If you get a call that says you can save somebody’s life or help buy them time, and you’re their only hope, how do you say no?” she said. “For me as a nurse, if this is what I can do to help somebody or to know that this is someone’s best chance at survival, I would have a hard time saying no to that.”

Molloy stressed that while it’s important to have more people register with Be The Match, potential donors should make sure they understand what they are signing up for and intend to move forward with the process. For more information, visit Donate Marrow or Blood Stem Cells | Be The Match. For more information on leukemia treatment options at Northwestern Medicine, visit Northwestern Medicine Leukemia Cancer Care | Northwestern Medicine.
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