AUBURN, Ala. — As a firefighter, saving lives is included in the job description.
But for Auburn firefighter Stephen Bradford, this life-saving initiative extends beyond rescuing people from smoke and flames.
"We readily get to help people with what we do on a daily basis," said Deputy Chief Matthew Jordan with the Auburn Fire Division. "This is above and beyond the call of duty on that. We are proud that he took this upon himself."
Last Friday, Bradford, 23, underwent surgery in Washington, D.C., to donate his bone marrow to a leukemia patient whom Bradford has never met. Not only has he never met the patient, but his knowledge of the 39-year-old man is limited to just that — his gender and age — and the fact that he lives somewhere in the continental United States.
"It was very exciting," said Bradford, who was back at work on Tuesday after his Friday surgery. "I was very happy to do it."
Bradford, a Madison native and Auburn University graduate who has been with the AFD for more than three years, explained that for a leukemia patient in need of a bone marrow transplant, there is 30 percent chance that a family member can donate bone marrow. For the remaining 70 percent of possible donors, chances are less than 1 percent that a person will be a match, or, one in one million people may be able to donate.
"That's the importance of being registered on a donor list," Bradford said. "I'm not sure what stage the cancer was in, but for it being a one-in-a-million match for them to find me, I was their only hope. Nobody else's bone marrow would be able to transplant for this particular patient."
Bradford registered for a bone marrow donor list called Delete Blood Cancer about a year ago. His dad had been on a donor list, and Bradford said registering was something he had always meant to do.
"Really, it wasn't joining the (fire division) or anything that got me to be on the list; I'd heard about it before, and I just researched it on my own," Bradford said.
After registering online, the organization sent him a mouth swab kit in the mail. He collected a sample himself and returned it, after which the fact that he was on the donor list eventually retreated from the front of his mind.
About a month ago that fact came quickly rushing back, as Bradford got a call indicating that he could possibly grant a fellow human being a shot at survival.
"It was an exciting moment," he recalled.
After the mouth swab proved his potential to donate, a blood test confirmed Bradford as a 100 percent match.
"And then I got a phone call asking when the soonest day I could fly to D.C. was," he said. "I think that happened on a Thursday, and then Monday evening I was on a flight. At that point in time, it was pretty quick, but it makes sense because a cancer patient is on the other end."
Delete Blood Cancer paid Bradford's travel expenses for two separate trips to Washington D.C., the location of one of the only bone marrow harvesting centers in the country. During the first trip, doctors gave Bradford a physical exam and performed other lab tests. Last Thursday, accompanied by his mother, Bradford traveled to the capital a second time for surgery.
Bradford spent three hours under anesthesia for a one-hour procedure that involved surgeons making two small incisions in his back to extract the bone marrow. Bradford was discharged from the hospital later that evening and was able to navigate the airport on his own to fly home the next day.
"I do not have stitches or anything like that, and now it's just a matter of keeping two little spots clean," he said. "My back is a little sore, but especially that anesthesia putting me to sleep, I was never in serious pain whatsoever."
Though he won't be allowed on a firetruck for a few weeks, Bradford said the overall experience was worth the minimal pain and minor inconvenience, and he encourages others to get on a bone marrow donor list.
"It was paid travel; it was just a fun experience in general," he said. "I never suffered; I was never in any severe pain from the surgery, and to top that off, you're helping a leukemia patient. There's really no reason not to be on the list. I would encourage everyone to be on it."
He explained that it is free to register, and it took him about 10 minutes online to do so — 10 minutes online that could in turn extend a lifetime.
"I definitely enjoy all the work we do for the community as a firefighter, but it was a great change of pace, and I think it's pretty easy to say that that was equivalent to some of the major calls I've been on — this leukemia patient that will no longer have leukemia. It was definitely rewarding and a fun experience on my end."
Find more information on Bradford's donor organization at www.deletebloodcancer.org . It is one of several available bone marrow donor registries.
Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, http://www.oanow.com/