Simple Cheek Swabs at Stony Brook Lead to Life-Saving Donations

Two alumni found out they were matches with patients needing bone marrow transplants.

Stony Brook University isn’t just a place to get an excellent education. It’s a place that provides opportunities for students to make a difference in little and big ways. In fact, there are so many amazing groups across the university that team up to help nonprofit organizations and raise awareness for important causes. And for two former students, they didn’t even realize how much of a difference they’d eventually make when they got a simple cheek swab at bone marrow registry events during student activities fairs.

Every three to four minutes, someone is diagnosed with blood cancer in the United States, according to Be The Match, a nonprofit operated by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) dedicated to helping patients get the life-saving transplants they need. Statistics show that only 30 percent of people with blood cancers — such as leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma — are able to find a compatible donor within their family. This means the majority of patients who need a bone marrow or stem cell transplant must find a donor who is not related to them.

Evan Gauer '22 was swabbed on campus and got the call a year later that he was a match.
Evan Gauer ’22 was swabbed on campus and got the call a year later that he was a match. (Photo courtesy of Evan Gauer)

Evan Gauer ’22, MBA ’23 said he was recruiting for the rugby club at the Student Activities Center plaza last year when he was approached by sorority members with a swab kit. The group explained that if they could swab his cheek for the Be The Match Registry, they would give him a cupcake. A swab that would only take a few minutes. “To be honest, I had completely forgotten about it until I got a call from Be The Match a year later,” Gauer said. “They told me I had been identified as a match for a 9-year-old boy with blood cancer.”

After that initial call in April 2023, he underwent some tests before waiting about three weeks to determine if his bone marrow could be used. Gauer said that after he was chosen, he had bloodwork done, an x-ray and an EKG before the surgery to extract his bone marrow.

According to Be The Match, there are two methods for collecting blood stem cells for bone marrow transplants. In each case, the type of procedure is determined by the doctors of the patient who needs the transplant. Donating peripheral blood stem cells (PBSCs) does not require surgery and can be done at a blood center or an outpatient hospital facility. Blood stem cells are collected in a process similar to donating plasma or platelets. The procedure, however, could take up to eight hours. Gauer underwent the second method: a surgical procedure performed in a hospital operating room. He said he was placed under general anesthesia so he didn’t feel pain during the surgery, and the bone marrow cells were extracted from his hips.

Gauer said the pain from the surgery lasted only a few days, and within two to three weeks, he was back at the gym. “It was a fairly quick recovery, especially when you think about what the patient is going through,” he said. Although Gauer doesn’t know much about the patient, depending on where the 9-year-old got his transplant done, Gauer may be able to connect with him at some point in the future. Either way, he’s glad he did it and hopes others will consider getting a cheek swab to join the registry. “I shared my story on social media to bring awareness to the donation process and, hopefully, to inspire others to get tested,” Gauer said. “This whole path has been unexpected and really put everything into perspective.”

Christina Muggeo ’14 was swabbed on campus and got the call six years later that she was a match.
Christina Muggeo ’14 was swabbed on campus and got the call six years later that she was a match. (Photo courtesy of Christina Muggeo)

Christina Muggeo ’14 agrees with Gauer. While it took longer for Muggeo to be matched, she said her experience was an amazing opportunity to help someone. She said she remembers being swabbed on campus in 2012 at a student activities fair where a campus organization had hosted Be The Match. “It was a quick cheek swab. All they said was that this could help someone with cancer live longer,” she said. “I didn’t think about it again until six years later, when I got the call saying I was a potential match.”

Muggeo got the call in late 2018 from DKMS, an international nonprofit organization that also helps find bone marrow donors and works with Be The Match. She was working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as a project manager at the time, so she consulted with one of the doctors who was actually on the board of DKMS about what the donation would entail. The doctor reassured her that there aren’t many risks, there is no cost to the donor, and most of the time there isn’t even surgery. She said once she got the all-clear that she was healthy enough for her match, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “Several factors went into my decision to donate my blood stem cells. Since I worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering, I knew how important a donation like this could be. I had also recently lost several family members to cancer,” she said. “Another reason was that the patient, a male in his 60s, was close in age to my father. I knew that donating my stem cells could give someone a second chance at life.”

Muggeo went through the PBSC donation in early 2019. In preparation, she received several filgrastim injections, which increased the number of blood stem cells in her bloodstream. During the six-hour procedure, Muggeo’s friends and family were able to sit with her as the machine extracted her stem cells. Afterward, she had to answer some questionnaires to make sure she didn’t have any lingering side effects, which she did not experience. She said she and the patient’s wife have been exchanging holiday cards anonymously through DKMS for a few years. There was talk of a possible meeting, but the pandemic put those plans on hold. Now that plans are being made again, Muggeo would like to meet the man she helped if the opportunity presents itself. “If he’s willing, I would meet him. That moment would make this experience even more meaningful,” she said.

Like Gauer, Muggeo shared her story to bring awareness about how to donate bone marrow. In her experience, it was just a few injections, doctor appointments and one day at the center. “But to a bone marrow recipient, that experience could equate to decades. It really is a beautiful opportunity that doesn’t come along very often in this world,” she said.

Both Gauer and Muggeo said they owe a lot to Stony Brook, not only for their education but also for the cheek swabs that eventually led to them saving lives. “This would not have happened without the student activities fair that day,” Muggeo said.

“Who would have thought that such a small act could have the big impact it has?” -Christina Muggeo

NMDP/Be The Match’s team of volunteers and healthcare professionals conducts research and manages the bone marrow registry to connect donors to patients. In addition to their connection to the university, Be The Match and NMDP have a relationship with the Stony Brook Cancer Center. The center’s team provides multidisciplinary care for blood-related cancers, cancers of the lymphatic system and bone marrow disorders, and ensures a seamless transition of care from treatment to transplant, if needed.

Learn more about Be The Match and how to join the bone marrow donation registry. Visit Stony Brook Cancer Center’s website for more information on the center.

-Christine McGrath

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