A 55-year-old man thousands of miles away should soon be walking around with the bone marrow of an Indiana family law attorney.
Indianapolis lawyer Carl Becker is donating marrow through a blood stem cell donation, a non-surgical outpatient procedure that will occur about four years after he registered to be a donor. The boutique law firm partner is taking time out of his practice to not only make that personal donation, but, hopefully, encourage his colleagues in the legal community to sign up to do the same at a time when the need for more donors is so great.
“I was taught and grew up believing there’s a need for compassion and kindness in everything you do,” said Becker, a partner at Indianapolis firm Newton Becker Bouwkamp Pendoski and the son of a southern Illinois state Circuit judge. “Just like being a family law lawyer where you can really see the impact of your practice on real people, this is about people being in the worst times of their life and just finding someone who can help them.”
Admitted to practice in Indiana in 1991, Becker began his career practicing family law at what is now Krieg DeVault in Indianapolis. He founded the legal department for Union Acceptance Corp. in the mid-1990s, working as an in-house attorney for several years before forming his own boutique firm in 2002 with some former colleagues. Now, he spends most of his time on family law but also delves into some financial and commercial work.
But Becker’s background in banking and the law had nothing to do with his decision to register as a potential donor, he said. Rather, it was a friend from church who was hosting a blood drive and asked him to get involved. He agreed, in large part because of values his parents instilled and the type of behavior he’s tried to maintain during his 20 years of practicing law.
Every year like clockwork, he received his registration card asking him to confirm his contact information and provide any necessary updates. He filled it out, not expecting anything. Some potential donors never get called, and he knows of one man who’s been listed for 16 years without any match. So he didn’t expect his phone to ring.
But in early May, it did.
“One day, I get a call out of the blue saying there’s a match for a 55-year-old man with acute myeloid leukemia,” Becker said. “All I know is that he’s not in this country, so my blood stem cells are heading for another country through this open-borders process.”
Before this, Becker said he wasn’t familiar with any type of cancer and specifically not AML, which is one of the most common forms of leukemia among adults. It starts inside the soft bone marrow tissue that helps form blood cells, and the cancer grows from those cells that would normally turn into white blood cells.
More than 9 million donors are listed on the Be the Match Registry of the National Marrow Donor Program, but most are never called to donate. Tissue matches must be so close that some patients who desperately need blood cell transplants do not receive them, according to Cathy Loeser, manager of the Indiana Blood Center’s marrow donor program. Those are always various serious cases, she said.
“More lives could be saved if more people would just register,” Loeser added.
Becker said he could have been chosen to donate blood or bone marrow, and his recipient needed his peripheral blood stem cells. That non-surgical outpatient procedure is used 76 percent of the time, statistics show, and a person’s marrow is removed through a surgical procedure at a hospital in the remaining 24 percent of cases.
The first step of the process begins Aug. 21, when Becker goes in for the first of a series of four shots to help his stem cells multiply for harvesting. He describes the shots being like “fertilizer for your bone marrow.” Over the next several days he will receive the remaining shots before the harvesting procedure occurs Aug. 25.
Describing the process as he understands it, Becker says his blood will be drawn from one arm, spun around in an apheresis machine three or four times to separate out the blood-forming stem cells, and then transferred back into his body.
His stem cells will then be flown outside the country to the recipient’s hospital.
Becker doesn’t know who the man is or where he lives — only that just prior to the donation, all of the man’s stem cells will need to be killed off by chemotherapy and radiation.
“My transplanted cells will become his, and there will be this guy walking around in Germany or somewhere with an Indiana family law attorney’s white blood cells,” Becker said.
During those four days of getting the shots, Becker says he might feel some discomfort or possibly like he has the flu. The total recovery could be as quick as a day, he said. He knows there are risks, like the one-in-3,000 odds that some unexpected complication could materialize. But Becker isn’t worried.
“You’re more at risk of something happening just by getting into a car,” he said. “This isn’t impacting my business, and I’ve just had to get a couple continuances. With just a lost day here or there, and a total 25 or 20 billable hours in exchange, it’s not even comparable in exchange for a guy somewhere being able to kick around with his kids cancer-free for another 20 years.”
Aside from the stem cell donation, Becker is also donating his blood platelets regularly – something that can be done as many as 24 times a year. Platelets have a shelf-life of five days before transfusion is necessary.
Becker hopes that more lawyers volunteer as potential donors and that they will use their clout in the legal community to spread the word about the need.
“We have a duty as business people or successful attorneys to pay our civic rent,” he said. “There’s an obligation to society to give back.”•