Cadet provides gift of life through stem cell donation

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
A native of Colorado Springs, Colo., in his second year at the Air Force Academy donated blood-forming stem cells in early September that may help save the life of a patient he's never met.

Cadet 3rd Class Karl Schroeder originally signed up to become a donor while enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

Schroeder's swab test identified him as a potential match for a patient in need of blood-forming stem cells, which help the body create red blood cells to carry oxygen and white blood cells to strengthen the body's immune system. The cells are commonly used to help patients who have undergone chemotherapy, according to the National Cancer Institute's website at

Schroeder received a phone call from a Colorado-based blood center asking him if he'd volunteer to undergo a series of tests that would determine how closely his human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, matched the would-be recipient's.

"After that, I just went through the rest of the phases that they have you go through: more extensive bloodwork to make sure you're an exact match," he said. "And then I matched up perfectly."

HLA types help the body's immune system identify foreign substances, so matching donor and recipient HLA types is important: A mismatch could result in the recipient's body rejecting the blood donation.

Once medical technicians determined Schroeder was a match, they set up a time for him to come in and donate.

"We actually had a date set up while I was on leave this summer, but the patient's health declined so much that they canceled the donation," Schroeder said.

The patient recovered, allowing Schroeder to go ahead with the donation after all, but "I had to go through all the bloodwork again," he said.

In the days leading up to the donation, Schroeder started injections of filgrastim, which increases the body's production of blood stem cells.

"Your body's just developing stem cells for four days to the point that it spills over into your blood," Schroeder said.

Schroeder and his father left Colorado Springs for the donation center the night before the procedure. The next day, at about 6:30 a.m., medical technicians plugged Schroeder into an apheresis machine.

"They put an IV in each arm, and they're pulling (blood) from one arm into this machine that just ... you see a bunch of wires on the wall with your blood in it. It spins the blood, takes the stem cells out and returns it to you," Schroeder explained. Apheresis machines are also used for blood plasma and platelet donation.

Stem cell donation is not invasive at all, in contrast to bone marrow donation, which is a surgical operation conducted under general or regional anesthesia, according to the National Marrow Donor Program's website at

"It wasn't too bad. The only thing was, for six hours, you can't move your arms; you can't get up," Schroeder said. "People are feeding you, giving you drinks through straws because you can't move your hands. After about the third hour, you're feeling pretty restless ... but it's nothing compared to what it's going towards."

Schroeder's charitable spirit has impressed Master Sgt. David Devan, CS 33's Academy military training NCO.

"As a cadet here, it is so easy to get wrapped up in your own worries and responsibilities," Devan said. "To stop to take the time to worry about someone you haven't even met -- that is a quality we need in cadets and future leaders. It is Service Before Self on a whole other level, outside the realm of how we would normally think of the term."

Schroeder said he would recommend other cadets sign up for the procedure given what it can do to change a recipient's future.

"I feel like most people hesitate because when they're signing up, they're like, 'What happens if I do get called?' But when you get the phone call, I'd say it's an easy decision, because someone's life is on the line," Schroeder said. "Also, the clinic I went to only does these donations two times a month, max, so they don't have very many people. The more donors available on the list, the more people they'll be able to match up with."

Jessica Maitland, Bonfils' vice president of marking and community operations, also thanked Schroeder for his donation.

"This young man's willingness to help someone he's never met is truly inspiring, and the fact that he's encouraging others to join in the hopes that they'll too be a match for someone is commendable," she said.