By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Byron C. Linder, Navy Operational Support Center Omaha Public Affairs
/ Published May 21, 2014
OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- U.S. Navy Personnel Specialist 2nd Class Dennis Spitnale, Navy Operational Support Center Omaha's administration assistant leading petty officer, spends a good portion of
his day on the phone coordinating the administrative needs for more than 350 Reserve Sailors who drill at eight different units on Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb. In January, he received a phone call which would lead to a 1,154‐mile trip to help save the life of a person he had never met.
For more than 20 years, the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program has worked with military personnel to facilitate bone marrow and stem cell donations to assist more than 12,000 people annually who are diagnosed with blood‐based diseases, such as leukemia and lymphoma, which require an infusion of stem cells. Spitnale, who had registered as a donor while at Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Ill., has AB+ blood - a type which, according to the Red Cross, accounts for only three of 100 donors.
Born and raised in Heidesheim am Rhein, Rhineland‐Palatinate, Germany, Spitnale is disqualified to donate blood due to the American Red Cross' policy of not allowing a person who has spent a total of five years or more from Jan. 1, 1980 to the present living in Europe due to the epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy - better known as mad cow disease - first confirmed there in 1986. Marrow and stem cell donation carries no such restrictions.
The marrow donor program's website states only 1 of 540 contacted donors actually complete the donation process, due to a wide array of factors. Spitnale revealed he had been contacted once before, but was unable to make the trip as he was deployed to Iraq at the time. He was eager to capitalize on this second opportunity.
"Within two weeks of that phone call, I was giving blood for testing to see if I was a good match," Spitnale said. "I decided that if I could save anyone's life, I would be willing."
NOSC Omaha's commanding officer, Cmdr. Timothy Buller, was determined to provide support.
"I was impressed this young man would willingly consider this kind of selfless act for another person. Our work and what we do on a daily basis is extremely important, but sometimes life is just bigger than work. This was an opportunity to make a difference in the grand scheme of someone's life," Buller said. "Regardless, we were going to flex and adapt our daily work routine to support Spitnale's participation in this program, and that's exactly what we did."
Chief Engineman (SW) Darren Cook, NOSC Omaha's senior enlisted leader, was equally impressed with Spitnale's willingness to commit to the endeavor.
"I had only heard it was a lengthy, painful process. I had no idea what to realistically expect. I've heard a few stories about how people would do something, but he's actually doing it. I could not be prouder of PS2 Spitnale as a Sailor and as a man."
With his decision to donate made and the blood testing confirming an optimal match, Spitnale made a trip to Georgetown University in Washington D.C. to undergo a full physical, setting up his donation date for March. But he had one final choice to make - which of the two methods of donation to pursue. Traditional bone marrow donation involves removing the marrow from the donor's hip using a needle, with recovery time being approximately two to four weeks. The second method, peripheral blood stem cell, eschews a needle in the bone for a series of intravenous injections.
Opting for PBSC, Spitnale traveled to the Apheresis Center at Georgetown University Hospital to receive a five‐day series of injections of a drug called filgrastim, which made his body release the stem cells from his bones into his blood. On the fifth day, these extra cells were gathered using the center's namesake apheresis machine. The machine used two intravenous needles to draw his blood through the machine, collect the cells, and return the blood to his body.
"I spent about one hour a day in the facility, receiving my injections, being asked questions and being evaluated for side effects," Spitnale recalled. "Some of the side effects were more severe than I imagined they would be, but they were treatable with stronger pain and nausea medication."
In addition to pharmacological assistance, Spitnale received some emotional support from his family, who lives in the D.C. area.
"After I was done at the hospital every day, I was free to do what I wanted. It was great to see my father, brother, sister and nephew. We all went out a couple of times, but I also slept a lot and watched movies on my computer at the hotel. It was pretty exhausting, and the last day I had a pretty severe migraine," Spitnale recalled. "I do remember that on the last day there was a courier standing there, and as soon as they were done with the procedure, he got the container and disappeared - someone was waiting on this."
Retired Master Chief Cryptologic Technician (Communications) Craig Taylor, who now works with Spitnale's father at the Food and Drug Administration, expressed his appreciation for his actions.
"It's clear he is on his way to being the type of example and leader the Navy needs," Taylor said in an e‐mail. "The Navy, and the world for that matter, needs service members like him."
The recipient, Spitnale later learned, is a veteran. Due to privacy regulations, the identity of the person will not be made available for a year, but Spitnale said he is open to meeting the recipient in the future.
"I knew it was through the DoD Marrow Donor program, but (being a veteran) didn't really make a difference in my decision. If I can save a life, I will. It's great that they are a veteran, and I hope they're doing well."
For more information on the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program, visit www.salutetolife.org.