MARIETTA - A simple mouth swab could make a life-saving difference for a local college student who's battled cancer for more than two years.
Tommy Pethtel, 22, a 2008 graduate of Marietta High School and currently a student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been fighting Hodgkins lymphoma since March 2012.
"He's already had a transplant from his own stem cells, but now he needs a bone marrow donor," said Cortney Beymer, licensed social worker with the Strecker Cancer Center in Belpre.
Tommy Pethtel, center, relaxes on the porch of his Marietta home with his parents, Tom and Kim Pethtel. (Photo by Sam Shawver)
Working with Tommy's parents, Tom and Kim Pethtel of Marietta, Beymer has scheduled a "swab-a-thon" from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday in the Marietta Memorial Hospital cafeteria on the hospital's ground level. The event is to collect as many mouth swabs from potential donors as possible to find a bone marrow match for Tommy.
"Unfortunately he's an only child, so there's no sibling who can be a donor, but a match from a local donor could save this young man's life," Beymer said. "We do the swab-a-thons as requested by families, but there's always a great need for donors."
Tommy, who's pursuing a degree in electrical engineering, said he's had to abandon his schooling twice over the last year or so due to the illness. The first time was to undergo chemotherapy prior to the transplant that harvested his own stem cells last year.
Now he's had to drop out a second time, basically losing all of the tuition and fees he's paid for the semester.
"I had just settled back into classes again in May, but now I'm starting chemotherapy again," he said. "For the next three months I'll have one treatment every three weeks."
His mother, a surgery nurse at Marietta Memorial Hospital, said the therapy has to be done in order to prepare Tommy's body to receive a transplant from a bone marrow donor.
"We're probably looking at November or December for the transplant operation," Kim said, emphasizing the importance of a good turnout for Friday's swab-a-thon, and the need for donors to become part of the national bone marrow registry.
"It's all about saving someone's life," she said. "And it's such an easy thing to have a mouth swab done."
Kim, Tom and Tommy said they'll all be present during the swab-a-thon.
"I always put it in perspective by asking people to think about if it was their family, friend, or child, you would do anything to try to save their lives," Beymer said of receiving a mouth swab and registering as a donor.
"We need to pay it forward. One out of three patients who need a bone marrow transplant find a match within their family (usually a sibling). The rest have to rely on the national registry," she said. "Finding a match can be difficult and it is a person's last hope. When you get swabbed you are on the registry until you are 55. We cannot register anyone over the age of 55 or anyone with a personal history of cancer or any autoimmune disorders."
Beymer said there's a perception by many people that donating bone marrow stem cells is a painful process, but 80 percent of the time if a match is found for a patient the donor donates the cells from his or her arm, similar to giving blood.
"Twenty percent of the time actual bone marrow is needed," she said. "It is an outpatient procedure where bone marrow is taken through the hip. You will be numb and can be sedated if you choose.
Donors sometimes experience flu-like symptoms for a couple days afterwards but all of this is a small price to pay to save someone's life."
In either case, donors bear no financial risk for the procedure which does not require traveling to the patient's location. The process can be performed at any major hospital.
"We do not try to talk people into being donors because of the risk of them changing their minds," Beymer said. "We stress that if you are a match you are this patient's last chance. You might not be a match for Tommy but there is a 'Tommy' in every town."