‘How could I not?’

James Zeiger donated bone marrow to a 63-year-old woman through the Be the Match bone marrow registry. Photo by Sam O'Keefe.

James Zeiger donated bone marrow to a 63-year-old woman through the Be the Match bone marrow registry. Photo by Sam O’Keefe.

When James Zeiger came across the Be the Match bone marrow registry table at the Havener Center during the summer of 2012, he didn’t think twice about registering to become a bone marrow donor. A frequent blood donor, it just seemed natural to sign up alongside the other camp counselors.

“It’s really easy. They just take a cheek swab for tissue type and put you into their system,” says the junior in architectural engineering from Hannibal, Mo. “I just figured that I’d never get called.”

Last year, 2,500 blood donations from five blood drives were given at Missouri S&T, more than any other university in a 38-county region.

But last fall, to his surprise, he did get a call.

“I answered and they said, ‘Hey, do you still want to be a donor?’ And I said, ‘I just signed up a year and a half ago — of course I do!’”

The registry representative told Zeiger he was a possible match for a 63-year-old woman.

“I guess that’s part of the reason I did it,” he says. “My mom is around that age. What if this had been my mom? How could I not?”

Zeiger was assigned a Be the Match representative, Pam, who was his contact throughout the process. The cheek swab was the first step — what followed were several trips to the Student Health Center for blood work to see if he was a compatible donor.

Told it would take about a month to get the results, he continued with his coursework, with the question always in the back of his mind — would he actually be a match? When Pam called to tell him, yes, he was “a really good match,” she also told him that the recipient has leukemia.

“That’s all they’ll tell you. They don’t want you to get in contact with them because they don’t want them or their family coercing you into donating,” he says.

“Be the Match is very good about protecting donors and ensuring they have every opportunity to opt out if they change their minds,” says Zeiger. “They said ‘if you change your mind, just let us know — we’ll find another match.’ I appreciate that.”

Now a verified match, he underwent additional tests at the Student Health Center to ensure he was healthy enough for the procedure. Then they started talking about scheduling.

PacketBottom“The process for the recipient is extensive,” he says. “I could back out at the last minute, but two weeks before the transfer she had to start on radiation to wipe out her immune system, so it wouldn’t reject my cells going in. By the time she is ready for my bone marrow cells, her white blood count is zero. So if I decided not to donate past that two-week period, she could almost die. That’s why you get so many opportunities to back out,” he says.

Be the Match paid all the expenses for Zeiger and his mother to fly to Washington, D.C., the Monday before Thanksgiving. The registry even paid to board their dog. The procedure was on Tuesday, and by Thursday, they were flying home. He returned to school like everyone else the Monday following Thanksgiving break.

“They tell you it’s painful, and it is,” he says. “But it only cost me some back pain for a couple of weeks, at most, then it’s over and I’m fine. I kept trying to imagine this 63-year-old woman with leukemia — like she probably has kids, grandkids and she’s facing death every day. Some back pain? That’s almost selfish if I don’t. … I just couldn’t imagine not doing it.”

Pam promised to let Zeiger know how the recipient was doing after the transplant, if there were any complications and whether the donation was successful. “She called during winter break and said, ‘I have some good news. The transplant was 100 percent accepted and she’s in remission. This could give her five to 10 more good years,” he says.

So will he ever meet the recipient? If both agree, it can happen a year after the procedure. Zeiger says at first he had no interest. “For a while I thought it would be like if I donated money to some charity and signed my name all over it that it was me who donated it,” he says. “I have a lot more respect for anonymous donations.”

But something happened recently that changed his mind.

“It was weird. I went to the drive-through and pulled up to the window and the lady said, ‘Hey, the lady in the blue Volkswagen in front of you paid for your meal and she wanted me to hand you this note.’ The note said something like, ‘Can this random act of kindness be passed along to somebody else?’ I was like, whoa! I have no idea who this person is that paid for my food and I want to thank them.

“Then I thought, man, if it drives me crazy to not know who paid for my lunch, I can’t imagine how she would feel. I guess I’ll meet her, if she’s willing,” he says.

Would Zeiger consider donating again someday? “Honestly, I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” he says.

By Linda Fulps


  1. Debby Huskey says

    James is a student assistant in our office, he is just as nice in person as he sounds like in the article. All the women in the office feel like he is our foster child, he has more “mothers” than he knows what to do with. We are so proud of him!!

  2. What an awesome young man. I have so much respect for him.

  3. Diana Ahmad says

    This is completely wonderful. What a great example! Thank you for your generosity!

  4. What a generous gift you gave!

  5. Kris Miner says

    James is courageous and sets a great example. I was a recipient of a cord blood transplant in 2012 because there wasn’t a match for me. It’s so important to register to become a possible donor. My son, Ben Prueter attends Missouri S&T and I’m so proud of their efforts in supporting Be the Match.

  6. On behalf of all bone marrow recipients, thank you James and to all the Missouri S&T students and faculty that have donated to Be The Match. What you’ve done is important, it matters and saves lives.

  7. James worked for me as a Summer Camp Counselor. This does not surprise me one bit, he is a great young man! Wonderful work James, very inspirational!

  8. Luce Myers says

    James inspires us to “Be the Match” and for
    organ donations. One of my art students painted a human liver to remind us that if someone did not donate their liver, she would not have had a mother. I then changed my status on my driver’s license. Our students change us for the best! Luce Myers

  9. Abhijit Gosavi says

    We have wonderful students in Rolla!

  10. Tonya Huskey says

    James has a kind heart and he is a true inspiration! I enjoyed working with him the last few years, he is a great role model for today’s youth.

  11. Netanya Martin says

    This was a heartwarming story. I’m the recipient of about 8 blood transfusions due to cancer surgery. Thanks for donating.

  12. Mallika Aruva says

    What a sweet heart you are..Keep up .God bless you and give lots of happiness, success, and much much more love in life..