It is one thing to enjoy one’s work and consider it valuable. It is another to be inspired to act selflessly without remorse because of the integral ideals of your workplace and career field. Introducing Mary Heiller and Edan Bomgaars: two women who have witnessed the profound connection between their work as pig farmers and their decision to make life-saving donations to others in need.
One two-week recovery, one salvaged childhood
Mary Heiller is a Provimi pork account manager at Cargill, where she spends her days working with pig farmers and feed mills across the U.S.
“One thing that attracted me to pig farming was the type of people in the business,” Mary said. “They’re very giving. The group of people who care for their animals and the people in their community was a big draw to me.”
Mary grew up witnessing that very generous nature first-hand and would act in a big way on her observations once she reached adolescence. When Mary was in high school, she gave back to her community by teaching Sunday school. Over the years, she encountered dozens of children, but one three-year-old in particular caught her attention and needed help. To preserve her health, she would require two bone marrow transplants before the age of five.
Learning this prompted Mary to take action and join Be The Match, the world’s largest and most diverse bone marrow registry. She was sent a DNA kit, swabbed her cheeks and that was that.
It is possible to sign up and never have a match. But five years later — in the spring of 2018 — Mary had just finished her last semester of college when a match was found: a little boy from somewhere in the U.S. Apart from that information, the donation was completely anonymous.
In the months leading up to the procedure, Mary did weekly blood tests while her match underwent full chemotherapy. The chemo knocks out patients’ immune systems so that they are more likely to fully accept the transplant. Post-transplant, patients must be very cautious to ensure they do not catch anything while their immune system is building itself back up. Often times, public areas are avoided, and a mask must be worn for the safety of the patient.
Finally, the day of the procedure came, and Mary headed up to the University of Iowa.
“Basically, bone marrow was extracted from the tops of my hip bones,” she said. “1000 ml. Very invasive. Recovery was about a two-week period, and my full strength was back in six months.”
Although there was a considerable amount of pain, Mary considered it worth it. It was a small price to pay in order for her match to have a fighting chance at childhood.
Edan Bomgaars works at RC Family Farms as an animal health and welfare coordinator. Her journey to stem cell donation through Be The Match also started in her church. She elected to join the registry through a drive with her college youth group.
“I just did it, and kind of forgot about it,” Edan said. “I’ve never really had anybody in my life with cancer and no connection to Be The Match at all.”
But Edan didn’t have to wait long for a connection to be made. A year and a half later, her phone rang, and it was urgent. From the start of her donation journey, Edan knew her match was a fifty-year-old woman, which reminded her of someone she knew.
“I was like ‘Wow, this is like my fifty-year-old mom. This is a no brainer; this is someone else’s mom,’” Edan said. “I had the opportunity to save somebody’s life; I just had to show up. I didn’t even have to think about it.”
After agreeing to donate, Edan was referred to Iowa City for the procedure.
“The week leading up was the biggest thing,” Edan said. “I had to go to the hospital in Ames every morning, and they would give me two shots of a stem-cell boosting medicine [The process] wasn’t that bad. I was just left with some large bruises on my arms and thighs that I thought were pretty cool. ”
The day of the procedure was Edan’s first day of her senior year at Iowa State. She got up around 5 a.m., went to the Iowa City blood center and was tested to see if she had generated enough stem cells. Then, after being deemed eligible, they stuck “a large needle” in her arm, hooked her up to a machine, and had her donate for six hours. It was “honestly nothing,” Edan said. “I just hung out, and they took my stem cells.”
Both Edan’s boyfriend at the time — now husband — and her father went with her for support, but her mother wasn’t able to attend. Yet, both parties had surprises in store.
“My mom wrapped me little gifts that I could unwrap every hour that I donated — gum, snacks, etc.,” she said. “And in the waiting room, my boyfriend asked my dad for my hand in marriage. [The timing] was really funny.”
Although Mary wasn’t very public about her donation, she felt incredible support from Cargill throughout the process. And afterward, she noticed coworkers started to open up about how cancer had affected their family, including a co-worker who lost a loved-one waiting for a bone marrow transplant.
“One of the most amazing things to happen was watching friends, family and co-workers sign up for the registry after my experience,” Mary said. “Until you see someone go through the donation process, it feels very unknown. It’s scary. It’s painful. But to think there is a little boy out there who gets to go to school and be active and live a normal life is just incredible.”
There are hundreds more stories just like Mary and Edan’s, people in the farming community and beyond who have chosen to help extend the life of complete strangers: someone’s child, someone’s coworker, someone’s mom.
6,100 transplants were completed in 2017 alone, and you could help add to that number by joining the Be The Match registry, hosting a drive at your workplace or church or giving a financial contribution. Learn more about the life-saving work of the registry and the donation process by visiting BeTheMatch.org.
“You’d like to think mankind would save someone’s life if they could. Who wouldn’t?” Edan said. “This community is full of hope, gratitude and so much life. I am so blessed to be a part it, and you can too! If you aren’t comfortable donating bone marrow and stem cells, there are many ways to volunteer and give.”