Nov. 19, 2015
By Mandy Housenick
GoLeopards.com Featured Columnist
As Blake Searfoss lay in a hospital bed last week with an IV in each arm, his father, Steve Searfoss, filled up with tears.
How could he not? Flashbacks – and pride – filled his head and heart.
Twenty-five years ago, the special education teacher turned high school vice principal reminisced of the countless days and nights he and his wife spent at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia cringing and praying as they watched their oldest child, Kyle, then just a baby, battle Stage 4 Neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that doctors predicted would have an 85 percent chance of taking their son’s life.
Kyle beat the odds and has been cancer-free since he was almost 6 years old, five years after the extraordinary journey began. But the memories of those gut-wrenching moments never dissipated.
So it’s easy to understand why Steve found himself tearing up as Blake, his youngest son and Lafayette College’s junior quarterback, sat through the six-hour process of peripheral blood stem cell donation Nov. 12 at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia.
Those blood-forming cells, sometimes called blood stem cells, will be donated to a man fighting leukemia.
“At one point (during Blake’s procedure) I got choked up because at some point you bury what happened to Kyle and try to isolate it,” Steve Searfoss admitted. “But sometimes it rears its head. It definitely brought back memories.”
And it made Steve proud.
“He didn’t complain once,” Steve said of Blake. “It’s something he was given the opportunity to do, and in his eyes it was his duty.”
Blake downplayed his commitment, despite it requiring about 25 hours of his time, traveling to Philadelphia and several days of feeling like he had the flu.
“I am definitely proud, but I feel like when they called and said I was the match that the doctor chose, it’s almost like a no-brainer,” Blake said. “I feel like other people in my shoes would have done the same thing. I just hope it works out.”
There was nothing simple about what Blake, who has thrown for 529 yards and one touchdown this year, had to go through to prep his body for the donation.
The first step in joining the Be The Match Registry was a cheek swab in May during a campaign, run by head coach Frank Tavani and the football team, for Be the Match. Tavani initiated the campaign on Lafayette’s campus six years ago during its spring season. After getting word in September that he could possibly be a match, Blake had his blood drawn and awaited word.
The chances of actually being a match, he knew, weren’t good. According to bethematch.org, only about one in 540 individuals will actually be selected as the best possible match.
Then word came that he was the go-to guy. Be The Match sent Blake 15 vials – each needing to be injected – that required refrigeration. Starting on Nov. 8 and continuing until Nov. 11, Blake drove to Ready Care in Easton, where he received three injections into his thigh.
According to bethematch.org, the drug that is injected, filgrastim, is meant to increase the number of blood-forming cells by moving them out of the marrow and into the bloodstream.
The main side effect, Blake said, was flu-like symptoms that included aches, pains and a headache. But since the Leopards had a bye on Nov. 14, Blake didn’t have to worry about missing much practice last week.
“What my brother and parents went through hit close to home with me,” Blake said. “I know how hard that fight is. I can sacrifice a couple weeks to help someone out because I know it’s such a battle.
“Every time I started to feel crappy, I said, ‘OK, I can deal with this for five days. The person I am helping probably has been dealing with this for four or five years. It’s wasn’t a big deal.”
On Nov. 12, Blake and his parents arrived at Hahnemann for the blood retrieval. During the procedure, Blake’s blood was removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood was returned to the donor through a needle in the other arm.
Other than admittedly being a little bored during the process – Blake didn’t think it would take quite that long – the only issue he had was a headache.
“There were tubes of blood running all around me,” Blake said.
Certainly, the procedure could have been much more invasive. If the patient’s doctor had decided a bone marrow donation would have been the better option over peripheral blood stem cell donation, Blake said he wouldn’t have hesitated to move forward. The only caveat would have been that he would have waited until football season was over.
According to bethematch.org, bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure requiring general anesthesia. Doctors use needles to withdraw liquid marrow (where the body’s blood-forming cells are made) from both sides of the back of the pelvic bone. The median time to recover from a bone marrow donation is 20 days versus seven days for a peripheral blood stem cell donationBlake knows little about the recipient except that he is a 48-year-old man. At least one year has to pass before Be The Match will disclose any other information about the patient.
“They said sometimes the patient will need a second donation within a year and they don’t want you to form a personal relationship,” Blake said. “They don’t want the donor to feel obligated. But if everything goes well and he survives, I can meet him. That’s definitely something I want to do.”
The whole process is definitely something Tavani is proud of Blake for.
“I told him there’s not a better thing in the world you could possibly give to anyone other than the gift of life,” Tavani said. “He’s a caring person. He comes from a good family. He’s just a terrific kid.”
There’s no doubt about that.