HILLSBOROUGH: Altruist hopes his body can deliver the gift of life

Runner gives bone marrow in a 1-in-5 million shot to save leukemia victim

By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
    Hillsborough’s Michael Newman became a bone marrow donor last week.
    His gift of life went to a 35-year-old European woman with leukemia he doesn’t know — and may never meet.
    After months of planning, Mr. Newman, 42, of Woods Road, spent a day hooked to tubes and catheters in Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick. As blood circulated into a vein in one arm and out an artery in the other, an irreplaceable orange secretion was filtered out in the process.
    As the bag of marrow filled over five hours, a courier stood by to rush directly to the airport where he cleared customs and screenings without question and flew off in a waiting plane to Europe. The marrow had to be received by doctors there within 24 hours.
    The peripheral blood stem cells will give the recipient a 50-50 chance to beat the blood cancer, Mr. Newman said.
    To prepare for the donation, Mr. Newman had endured dozens of blood and other tests over months. About 11 days before going to the hospital for the donation, he said the gravity of his act hit him.
    At that point, the woman in Europe had begun intense chemotherapy to rid her body of as much of the cancer as possible.
    “There was no turning back after that,” he said. “If she didn’t receive my donation, she would die. You start thinking ‘I’ve got another life on shoulders here.’”
    Mr. Newman doesn’t know much about the recipient, and she doesn’t know him. It’ll be at least two years before Mr. Newman’s identity is released to the recipient, and it will be up to her to contact him if she wishes. Without word, he’ll never know.
    Mr. Newman, a 6-foot, 170-pound runner with 15 marathons under his belt, is a man who believes in helping. He has run foot races to raise money for ill people. He and his wife, Courtney, have formed and run Steps Together, an organization that teaches and encourages runners to train and raise money for an umbrella of causes. In total, they have raised more than a half million dollars over the years.
    So it’s not too surprising the selfless Mr. Newman would put himself through discomfort, inconvenience and potential threat to his own health to help someone only he could aid. There is only a one in five million chance of a match between nonrelatives, Ms. Newman said in a Facebook post.
    Saturday, Mr. Newman was back up and moving, but not ready to race the clock as he pushed his lawn mower around his Woods Road yard, let alone succumb to urges to hit the roads again. He puts in 30 to 40 miles a week in an off-season and 100 to 120 miles in marathon training.
    He said he wants to relate his experiences for the New York Blood Center or other websites to tell people about bone marrow donations.
    “All in all, I’d do it again,” said Mr. Newman, who is responsible for a team of engineers who develop and commercialize cryogenic food freezing and chilling equipment for Linde Gas. “There’s discomfort but it pales to what the family has to go through on the other end.”
    Many people donate a swab of genetic material to enter their DNA into a potential bone marrow donor registry, but few are called.
    Last fall, he and his wife both swabbed their cheeks for the bethematch.com website. They sent it in and forgot about it, he said, until he got a call that said he was a one in 12 match for a recipient.
    Weeks of what seemed to be endless blood tests — at least 30 vials — to satisfying testing in both the United States and abroad and delays followed. A January donation date was made and canceled; another in mid-May was put off because the recipient was too ill.
    In the five days before the donation, Mr. Newman received 10 injections of neupogen to stimulate bone marrow production in his blood. He told his wife he felt like the hip bone had expanded and wasn’t fitting in the socket. Large-muscle groups, from where most of the marrow is secreted, ached.
    Counting down the days, Mr. Newman tipped a last celebratory glass of wine May 21. His wife joined him; if he could go dry during her pregnancy, she could empathize with him now, she wrote.
    On donation day, after more blood tests and injections of neupogen, he began the five-hour tap.
    “I was very anxious,” he said. “If you look at the photos, you’ll see I had a pretty good sweat going.”
    Neupogen forces the bones to produce three times as much marrow as normal, he said. The marrow penetrates out of the bone and into the bloodstream. He said 20 liters of blood circulated through his body, and he could feel his hips and knees “popping” as the drug expanded his bones, he said.
    Ms. Newman kept friends and family updated with daily, even hourly, posts on Facebook. She was there feeding her husband power bars through the donation.
    The Newmans’ act didn’t go unnoticed. Friends Kevin and Jenny Macias left two cases of Blue Moon beer at the Newmans’ back door. Their neighbors, Derrith and Michael Spitzer, through whom the Newmans learned about the bone marrow registry, came by with a cake shaped in the form of a person’s hips.
    Organizing other people to raise money to fight diseases is one act of charity; putting your own time and body on the line is another.
    “What Mike is doing literally epitomizes what Steps Together is about,” Ms. Newman posted. “He is paying it forward and stepping up to help someone in need, someone he doesn’t even know. May you find this story as inspirational as I do.”