Thanks to Eagle Scout project, local young man donates stem cells and saves a life

By Jill Draper 

Lots of college students take trips after graduation, sometimes to see the world and sometimes just to relax after years of studying. Jackson Ismert traveled to Denver, but his trip wasn’t for either of those reasons—it was to save a man’s life.

Ismert earned a degree in hospitality management from the University of Missouri-Columbia last May, and says it was a crazy six weeks and a bit overwhelming to be preparing for finals, moving back to his mom’s place in Martin City and looking for a job in his field. Then he received a phone call, followed by texts and emails from an unknown number. He dismissed them as crank messages or spam.

The organization, an international nonprofit called DKMS, finally reached out to his mother, Molly Ismert, before he realized the calls were legitimate—the result of an action he took nearly five years ago when he offered a saliva swab for his friend Mitch McKenzie’s Eagle Scout project. McKenzie collected over 100 samples for Be the Match Registry, a marrow donation program.

Jackson Ismert  is hooked up to a machine that takes blood from a vein in one arm, filters his stem cells and returns the blood into a vein in his other arm. 

“I kind of forgot about it, and then I was very, very surprised to find out I was a match,” Ismert says. “But to me, it was an easy decision to go through with it.” According to the registry, the odds are that 1 in 430 people in the U.S. will go on to donate bone marrow or blood stem cells.

First he had to tell his new employer, Hyatt Place in Lenexa, that he needed to take a week off at the beginning of his internship. They were happy to accommodate him. “They said people take off work for way worse reasons than that,” Ismert says.

Later he started a five-day series of injections administered by an in-home nurse to stimulate the stem cells in his bone marrow to enter his blood stream. Blood stem cells used to be taken mainly from bone marrow, where they develop. Nowadays it’s also possible, and less invasive, to filter stem cells directly from the blood. 

The organization made arrangements for Ismert to fly to Denver, and also paid for his hotel and meals. On the day of the procedure, he arrived at Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center at 6:45 a.m. for one more round of injections. Soon he was hooked up to a machine that took blood from a vein in one arm, filtered his stem cells and returned the blood into a vein in his other arm.

He describes the process as “close to painless.” The hard part was sitting still for nearly seven hours. During that time he snacked on a milkshake, fries, salad and a Dr. Pepper (anything he wanted from the hospital menu) and napped, watched movies and browsed the internet with the one hand he was allowed to move. What about, um, bathroom breaks? He was given a bottle for that.

 Jackson Ismert s holding the bag of filtered stem cells that will be used for the cancer patient.

Ismert doesn’t know who received his stem cells, only that it was a 37-year-old man with acute leukemia who needed 1 million stem cells to fight the disease. Ismert was able to donate well over that amount. If the man lives, they’ll be allowed to contact each other in a year’s time.

“I’ll wait for him to reach out to me, but I’d love to talk to him,” he says. He remembers that Mitch McKenzie’s brother, John, also made a stem cell donation to a man who recovered from cancer. “They ended up meeting and became good friends. They still keep in touch.” 

Whatever the outcome, Ismert calls the procedure a good experience. “The nurses were amazing and except for some achy bones and a headache from the injections, it didn’t affect my life. I pretty much felt 100% back to normal within a couple of hours. I would totally do this again in a heartbeat.”

He hopes his donation gives the 37-year-old recipient a heartbeat for years to come. 

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