Worried about donating bone marrow? Leith will gladly soothe your fears

Credit: Steve Gladfelter/VAS Derek Leith

Derek Leith, coordinator of the Stanford Blood Center's marrow donation program, calls his own donor experience ‘the coolest thing in the world.'

Derek Leith is a people person.

The tall, ponytailed coordinator of the Stanford Blood Center's marrow program loves meeting people and waxing eloquent on the importance of donating, whether it's blood, platelets or bone marrow. Given half a chance, he'll walk anyone interested through each step of the process, without a hint of impatience.

'I'm very passionate about the program, and I love talking to people about what we do here,' Leith, 42, said. Bone marrow transplantation is among the few treatments with the potential to cure some forms of leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. On any given day, more than 6,000 patients search the national marrow registry for a matching donor, hoping for a new lease on life.

Contrary to what one might believe when first meeting and talking to him, Leith hasn't been at this job all that long. He graduated from Stanford University in 1987 with a BA in economics, but turned down jobs with investment houses to open his own restaurant: the Stanford Pub and Grill on Emerson Street in downtown Palo Alto.

'I did that for eight years and loved it, but then Palo Alto changed. It wasn't fun anymore,' Leith said of running this business. He sold the restaurant in 1997 and went into financial consulting, but hated every moment of it. In 2000, he took his first job at the blood center, working with information systems.

'They [at the center] quickly realized that I deal with people a whole lot better than I deal with computers,' Leith remarked wryly. He moved on to recruiting blood donors via telephone, before eventually directing recruitment for the platelet apheresis program. Apheresis is the Greek word for 'separation,' and so it follows that platelet apheresis separates platelets - cell fragments essential for blood clotting - from the rest of the blood.

Then in 2004, Diane Hill handpicked Leith to succeed her as coordinator of the marrow program, a job he's relished ever since. Hill said she chose Leith because he really 'gets' the job; he knows what he's doing and why.

'You can't teach customer service - it has to come from within,' Hill said. 'You have to want to put a smile in your voice, even if it's 4:35 p.m. and you're going to miss your train, and you've already talked to 42 people that day. Because that's why we're here, to take care of people and help them help patients in need.'

Leith has all these qualities. Though he says he 'missed his calling in life to be a teacher,' he hasn't really. He teaches for the blood center every day. Donating whole blood is a straightforward enough process, but not so bone marrow. Many people are unaware of all the steps and needles involved, from tissue-typing to actual marrow collection, should they be matched with someone in need. So it's all too easy to lose potential donors along the way through general confusion and a lack of proper education, according to Leith.

'I open myself up to these people,' he said. 'If they have questions or issues, it doesn't matter when, I tell them to just give me a call. I'm always willing to be available for educating people.' And if he can meet them in person, so much the better.

Much of Leith's time is spent allaying people's fears about the pain involved in harvesting bone marrow, and educating them on a new, noninvasive method called peripheral blood stem cell collection. This is essentially a modified version of platelet apheresis, but bone marrow stem cells are collected instead. It has largely replaced traditional, and painful, marrow extraction through the hipbone, so people need no longer be terrified of 'the big needle.' As well, those who've journeyed through every stage of marrow donation - from the initial cheek swab (for tissue-typing), rigorous laboratory tests to finally being matched with a patient - probably owe their commitment in no small part to Leith's consistent encouragement.

'I make sure the buy-in is there by that point, that they know what they're getting into,' Leith said.

'All it takes is one visit with a donor meeting their recipient to understand why I have the passion I do,' he added. 'It's an incredibly emotional experience. I'm just the conduit that put both of them together, but when they finally meet, I think, 'This person would have died without this other person being contacted, educated and then being willing to donate their marrow to save a life.' It's pretty powerful.'

Leith has his own donor experience to draw on. He describes it as 'the coolest thing in the world.'

'I'm a 6-foot-1 Highland Scotsman, as Caucasian as they come, and I was matched with a 6-year-old African-American boy. Things tend to run along ethnic lines, if you look at the tissue-type charting … but you just never know,' he said.

He often uses this story when giving recruitment talks in ethnic communities, to show that there should be no boundaries, racial or otherwise, when it comes to helping others in need.

Leith is determined to make the marrow program more accessible. 'We just don't have the manpower,' he said, to be everywhere at once to recruit donors. So he's planning 'virtual drives.' Potential donors will notify Leith electronically that they'd like to learn more. Then a member of the Stanford Blood Center staff will call to teach them about the process and mail them the saliva test kit that identifies their bone marrow type. A pilot effort earlier this year at Hearst Cancer Resource Center in San Luis Obispo has already added close to 300 people to the donor registry, he said.

'Giving marrow is at the top of the donation pyramid,' Leith said. 'You're one-on-one with another person; at the end of the day, you're the only one who can help save that person's life. It's an amazing gift.'

Alissa Poh is a science-writing intern in the Office of Communication & Public Affairs at the School of Medicine.

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care (formerly Stanford Hospital & Clinics), and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

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