Saving strangers: An Airman's journey through service before self

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt. Joshua Weaver
  • 434th Air Refueling Wing

How far would you be willing to go to save the life of someone you’ve never met?

That’s the question Master Sgt. Ashley Stant, 434th Force Support Squadron personnel systems manager, was facing earlier this year when she found out she was a potential bone marrow match candidate.

Stant first heard about becoming a donor at a commander’s call, where she heard the story of someone else who had donated bone marrow. The organization conducting the briefing even had a stand set up allowing interested donors to do cheek swabs after the brief was over. But Stant skipped the table and went back to work instead.

“I remember bypassing the swab station because I had a bunch of work to do, so I just kept walking and never signed up,” said Stant. “I know it sounds terrible, but that’s life in the MPF sometimes.”

Time passed and she never really thought about the possibility of being a donor again, until one day she had an epiphany.

“A couple years after that brief, I had a realization that I might go through life just ‘existing’,” she said. “I realized that I didn’t want to go through my life without making some sort of impact in someone else’s life, so I ordered a swab kit.”

Roughly a year and a half after she sent the swab back, Stant got an email stating that she was a “potential” match.

“I was contacted by email on July 7, 2020 stating that I was a potential match, and moving forward, there was only an 8 percent chance that I would match,” she said. “After completing a couple more tests I received an email on Aug. 6 letting me know I was an excellent match.”

The patient was a 63 year old male with chronic myelogenous leukemia. That’s all the information she received about the patient. No name, no location, just his age and his diagnosis.

Armed with the little information she had, Stant now had to decide if this was still something she wanted to do.

“Not donating was never an option for me,” Stant said. “I knew whoever they are, they have been in much deeper pain that I would ever have to deal with on this donation. This is literally their last option for survival”

She had never had a surgery or procedure done and was nervous, but she knew this was something she wanted to do.

“The hospital told me several times that this was voluntary, and I didn’t have to do it,” said Stant. “I told them I was in it for the long haul.”

After the testing was complete it was time to start the process of collecting cells. A process that starts five days before the actual collection. During those five days Stant was given Filgrastim shots each day allowing her cells to make copies of themselves to get ready for collection day.

Those shots, while necessary caused excruciating pain.

“Every day got worse, the 3rd and 4th days were the worst,” she said. “The pain would only last about 15 seconds, but made me have to stop and clench something for balance.”

While the pain was intense, Stant understood the gravity of the moment.

“I kept telling myself, this isn’t as bad as what this man is going through,” she said.

On the final day -- collection day, Stant laid on a table and started the five and a half hour process of saving a strangers life. With needles in her left arm, and an IV in her right the process of collecting 5.9 million cells began.

“I had to keep my left arm straight the whole time or the machine would tell on me,” she said. “The blood came out and the machine separated the cells and then gave me my blood back.”

After all the cells were collected, a nurse took the bag of cells, counted them to make sure there were enough, put them in a cooler and released Stant from the hospital.

“I got up and literally walked out feeling achy, but fine,” she said. “The worst part was just lying there for five and a half hours, but I went home and slept it off for a few days and came back to work the following Monday.”

With the donation complete, Stant hopes to someday meet the person who received her cells.

“I absolutely would like to meet him,” she said. “Both of us have to agree to it, and we can’t reach out until a year from the donation, and I will let him make that decision, but my answer will be a yes.”

As she reflects on the entire process, Stant hopes that others will consider donating even if they have passed it by before, or are apprehensive about the process.

“No matter how much you think needles or blood make you scared or sick, it won’t matter once you’re given the opportunity,” she said. “Ignore that message in your brain and take advantage of this gift. This is the last chance for most of these individuals, they are someone’s family, and you would want someone to step up and save your family member just like they do. Let that someone be you.”