Mark Bernstein makes lifesaving donation to patient

Why he's encouraging others to join the bone marrow registry, too

DETROIT – Mark Bernstein is well-known to many as part of the Sam Bernstein Law Firm and as a member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents, but now he is making a difference in a very different way.

It started with a phone call out of the blue telling Bernstein he was a potential match for a patient who needed a bone marrow transplant. They wanted to know if he would be willing to help save someone's life.

"It's an amazing thing to get a phone call from a stranger telling you you have the opportunity to potentially save someone's life -- a stranger's life," said Bernstein. "I don't think there's an alternative to this. I could not imagine saying no."

Related: 11-year-old needs bone marrow match

Bernstein doesn't even remember joining the bone marrow registry, but he did, 15 years ago, while he was working at the White House for the Clinton administration.

"I don't recall where or exactly when," said Bernstein. "That shows how simple of a process it is."

To join the registry requires just a swab from the inside of your cheek. It's completely painless. All these years later, Bernstein is a match and someone's life depends on it.

"It could be a young child, it could be a person with children, it could be someone with a husband or wife, grandparents," said Bernstein.

He agrees to undergo further testing, including bloodwork, a full physical and chest x-ray at the Karmanos Cancer Institute. Bernstein passes everything with flying colors and agrees to be a donor.

"If this were me, or my wife or my children, parents or my friends, I would pray that somebody would be willing to go through this."

In the four days leading up to the donation, Bernstein receives a daily shot of a drug to increase the number of stem cells in his blood.

On the morning of the donation, he arrives early at Karmanos.

Many people expect the process to be painful. That's because years ago, doctors collected bone marrow by drilling into the patient's hip bone. These days, the majority of donations, including Bernstein's, are made by collecting stem cells from the blood in a process called apheresis.

It can take up to six hours to collect enough cells. Mark's family helps him pass the time. Meanwhile, a courier is waiting inside the hospital to fly Bernstein's stem cells to the patient.

Bone marrow transplants can treat, and even cure, a long list of health problems, including leukemias, lymphomas, blood diseases, and inherited metabolic disorders.

"It's the most amazing gift they can give somebody. It's giving a new life to somebody," said Dr. Abhinav Deol, an oncologist at Karmanos.

But about 30 percent of patients, often minorities, will not find a match on the registry.

"We need more people, especially ethnic minorities, to sign up on the registries," said Deol. "It's very frustrating not only for us, but also for the patient and their families too. Because they have a potential procedure that has a chance of curing their disease, but their only limitation factor is that they don't have a donor."

Bernstein hopes sharing his experience will encourage others to join.

"If we can get just a few more thousand people registered, or ten thousand or a hundred thousand, there's no question that that will save lives," said Bernstein.

He wrote a note for his recipient. It reads in part "I am sending every ounce of energy and prayer to you for complete healing. May God strengthen you and those who tend to you. With love and gratitude, Your Donor Match."

"I feel truly just really blessed and grateful to be a part of this process," said Bernstein. "I hope, God willing, that I get to meet this person and that they'll be healthy and recovered in a year's time and that we'll be able to celebrate this."

If you want to join the bone marrow registry, Local 4 is teaming up with Be The Match and Wolverines for Life at the University of Michigan to hold two bone marrow drives on Friday, September 19th. Click here for all of the details.

You need to be between the ages of 18 and 44 to join the registry, because patients do better if the donor is younger. If you don't meet that requirement, you can donate money to help offset the cost of adding people to the registry.

If you can't make it to one of the drives, you can also join online by clicking here.

Learn More: Be The Match explains bone marrow donation.