A member of the USC Board of Trustees and the assistant director of sports medicine for the University of Tennessee football team first met this weekend when the Vols came to town to take on the Gamecocks.
But the two have a connection that began over a year ago — and it runs much deeper than a board member having dinner with an Arnold School of Public Health alumnus.
Trustee J. Egerton Burroughs was diagnosed with acute leukemia about two years ago. His doctors at Duke University Hospital told him he had two options – chemotherapy, which could extend his life to up to 18 months, or, if he qualifies and a compatible donor is found, a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant, which, however, a involves some risk could bring healing.
“It was child’s play for me. I chose to have the transplant,” Burroughs said.
Luckily, a donor matching Burroughs was found on the registry. And while the pool of potential donors stretches across the country, this donation came from someone with South Carolina connections. Alex Medina, who earned his Masters in Advanced Athletic Training from USC in 2015, would provide the life-saving stem cell donation.
Medina was in graduate school at USC when he and his Arnold School classmates volunteered to be wiped and placed on the Be The Match roster. The National Bone Marrow Donor Program matches patients with matched donors for transplants.
In August 2021, he opened an email saying he matched a patient with leukemia and provided information for further testing and screening.
“As they go through the donor selection process, they select the donor that best fits the patient who needs it. So I happened to be a very good match for this patient and they set the donation date,” says Medina.
After taking a drug that helps stimulate bone marrow and increase his white blood cell count, Medina flew from Knoxville to Cincinnati, where he underwent a few hours of peripheral blood stem cell donation. The process is similar to donating plasma, where blood is drawn through a needle in one arm, passed through a machine that separates out the stem cells, and the remaining blood is then returned to the donor in the other arm. When medics have collected the right amount of stem cells, a courier transports the bag to the patient awaiting transplantation.
“I flew back to Knoxville and continued to work. August is the busiest month for me due to pre-season football camp,” he says.
Meanwhile, at Duke, Burroughs had completed the screening and preparation process for the transplant.
“Once they figure out you have a match, you’re really, really well beefed up with a very, very high rate of chemotherapy to make sure every cell in your body that might be infected with that cancer is dead,” says he. “Then they give you the transplant, which is done with an IV bag. It took maybe 30 minutes.”
After the transplant, a patient continues to receive blood transfusions until the body begins to make bone marrow. A little over a year after the transplant, Burroughs is cancer-free and says he feels “great”. And because the transplant was successful, Burroughs and Medina were allowed to contact each other after the one-year mark.
“He sent me a nice email introducing himself and saying ‘thank you,’ and we started communicating via email and found out he’s from South Carolina and sits on the university board of trustees,” says Medina . “It was pretty cool to see a place that I’m really familiar with and have had two really good years. I just felt like it really is a small world.”
Burroughs said he was eager to get in touch with his donor: “I wanted to thank him for being alive. It doesn’t work without the donor. And when Alex and I started communicating, we realized that we had so many things in common. He was a graduate of one of our top programs. When he graduated I was a trustee at the university. Wherever I sit when I start school, I watch the graduates come by. So maybe I saw him coming by.”
While at USC, Medina worked as a research assistant with the Gamecocks football team and then moved on to athletic training positions with the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, James Madison University, and the University of Tennessee, where he serves as an athletic coach and associate director of sports medicine for Soccer.
Burroughs says he wants to work with Medina and others to encourage people to be donors – of blood, bone marrow, blood stem cells and platelets.
“During a bone marrow transplant or chemotherapy, the bone marrow is attacked or destroyed and the patient is dependent on blood transfusions. It’s critical that people understand that blood is scarce,” Burroughs said. “We urge people to donate blood through the Red Cross. And the only way people can get these transplants is through donors.”
For Medina, adding more people to the donor registry means a better chance that patients battling leukemia or other diseases have a chance of full recovery. He says his mother, who was a nurse, had two bouts of cancer, one in the 1990s and one in the past three years. She died in September knowing her son had helped save a life.
“My mother was a big personal influence on me. So it was kind of rewarding to tell my mom that I’d matched someone and they had a good score. She was very happy about it.”
To learn more about joining the registry, visit the Be the Match website. For more information on donating blood, visit the Red Cross website.