What began in 2016 as an effort to help the family of a fellow team member has turned into an international life-saving mission for Blue Ridge Southern (BLU) Roadmaster Brock Parham.
In February of 2016, BLU Trainmaster Nathan Higgins’ son, Jackson, was diagnosed with a rare and serious condition known as aplastic anemia, a condition that occurs when a person’s body stops producing enough new blood cells and leaves the person susceptible to infection and fatigue. In March of 2016, the BLU TS&IC coordinated a blood drive and bone marrow donation registry through the American Red Cross and the Be the Match organization in an attempt to make a difference in Jackson’s life as well as others.
As a result of the bone marrow registry, Brock was recently identified as a stem cell/bone marrow donor through the Be the Match organization.
“I didn’t recognize the number on my cell and about didn’t answer the call,” said Brock. “They asked if I was still willing to participate in the program and be a donor and I said yes.”
Brock had to undergo three sets of interviews, a health assessment, one with a caseworker, and one that detailed the process to be sure that Brock understood what he would have to do in order to complete the donation.
“They constantly reminded me that I could quit at any time if I wasn’t comfortable with continuing,” said Brock.
Once Brock agreed to the donation, he had to start filgrastim injections which helped his body build excess amounts of stem cells for a donation. A package containing the items needed for the injections was delivered to the Blue Ridge depot to ensure that someone would be there to receive it as the contents had to be refrigerated. A week prior to the donation Brock began going to a local urgent care facility that had agreed to give the shots to Brock.
“The nurse, Toya, told us to call her Big Mama,” Brock said. “She was quite a character and made the process a lot more enjoyable. I had to get the shot and then sit around for 15 minutes afterward just to be sure I didn’t have an allergic reaction to anything.”
This process was very painful as the bones in the body that are producing the stem cells are working overtime to produce the extra cells.
“It made me feel really achy, like I had the flu,” said Brock. “I could feel every bone in my body, especially my upper leg and hip because those are the bones that produce the most blood. It took about three days after the whole process for the aching to stop.”
Brock’s three kids were really interested in the process and each one of them, Hannah, 18, Triston, 20, and Waylon, 11, went to the clinic with him on different days. His wife Tina wanted to get the chance to meet Big Mama so she went with Brock on the last day he received the shot.
“Cain (Green, BLU general manager) was very supportive. He said to do whatever I needed in order to make the donation. He was one of the guys who helped organize the blood drive and Be The Match registry back in 2016 so he was aware of how important it was,” said Brock.
On June 12, the day that Brock gave his donation, he had to go to the cancer center in Greenville, South Carolina, which is 70 miles from their home. Brock was given his final injection of the filgrastim and then hooked up to the machine that extracted the stem cells and plasma from the blood. The process began at 8:30 a.m. and was completed at 3:58 p.m., but Brock was still hooked to the machine until 4:45 p.m.
Brock said, “There was a courier standing by and as soon as they had everything ready, they put it on ice in a cooler and handed it to the courier.”
Brock completed a successful donation of more than 9.54 million stem cells; the anonymous recipient, who has acute myeloid leukemia, only needed a donation of 4 million. There is only a 24- hour window for the donation to remain viable, so Brock’s donation was flown directly to Germany, where the recipient lives, for transfusion.
“I would definitely do it again,” said Brock. “I was told my match was a 32-year-old with acute myeloid leukemia, I just thought, ‘What if that was me, how would I feel if my only chance at life were in the hands of a complete stranger?’ I’m a faith-based man and I figured that there was a reason that I was the match and that the Lord would see me through it all.”
Brock hopes to meet his match and according to the international regulations regarding donations, Brock can contact him anonymously through the organization for a two-year period and after that time frame he would have the opportunity to meet with him face-to-face if both parties agree to it.
“I’m working on writing something right now to send to the caseworker to give him,” said Brock. “Something just to let him know I’m thinking of him and praying things go well. I didn’t do it to get attention, I did it because it’s the right thing to do,” he added. “The first thing that they always look at is family, but when that doesn’t work out they have to go to the registry. Be The Match said that out of all the people registered, 50% actually say yes when they are asked to donate. When that’s your last hope, those odds are rough. I would encourage everyone that can to look at signing up and becoming a donor, it’s that important.”
The April 2016 Watco Dispatch that highlighted Jackson Higgins and the event that started this can be found at https://watcocompanies.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/04-April-Web-2016.pdf.
As a follow up to Jackson’s condition, his dad Nathan said, “Even though the circumstances were devastating with our son being sick, without the blood drive/bone marrow event the Blue Ridge Southern held in 2016, this miracle would not be happening. We are so proud that Brock was selfless enough to let his cheek be swabbed that day and agree to help someone if they needed him. He is a true hero.”
He added, “Jackson just turned 13 years old and is heading to Early College at HCC this fall. We are blessed to say he is doing great! While he still goes to the NIH for yearly bone marrow biopsies and to our local clinic for monthly blood checks, he lives a completely normal teenage life. He loves hiking and riding his dirt bike. While it’s hard as parents to let him live on a more adventurous side because of his history, it also feels great to let him make up for time lost while he was in the hospital. His red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets may never be what are considered “normal” levels, but he is stable and has no restrictions. We are grateful for those stable counts and live each day to the fullest. His diagnosis changed our life and is still changing our life today. While we despise the word relapse and find it impossible to say aloud, we know it will always be a possibility in his life. If anyone takes away anything from our story, I hope that it is the importance of donating blood and registering at Be The Match. Blood donations saved his life and in the future his life may depend on a bone marrow match. Please register at https://bethematch.org/ and take the time to donate blood when you can. It’s truly the easiest way to become a hero.”