Column: An easy, simple way to honor Alex

A wave of panic rushed through my body as my co-worker handed me his cell phone. My mind raced through all sorts of possibilities of what I was about to hear.

It was five years ago on a Saturday night in Saratoga Springs. I was settling into the cocktail hour at our annual New York State Press Association convention before the final dinner and round of awards. The weekend festivities were drawing to an end and I was relaxing with a glass of wine, mingling with my fellow writers.

The call came from a representative of the Be the Match Registry, which coordinates donors for people who need bone marrow to treat life-threatening blood cancers like leukemia. I had signed up a few years earlier, but my cell phone number had changed. The representative had reached out to every contact I had listed, including my co-worker, who happened to be with me at that moment. A match had been found for my bone marrow, I was told. In that moment, I felt a mix of relief that nothing tragic had happened and shock over what it all meant, I had no idea exactly what would happen. Was I about to be flown to a hospital for an emergency procedure? Was it problematic that I had alcohol in my system? Would I need to drive home immediately?

I shuffled off to a quiet part of the hotel and listened to my instructions. I answered a litany of questions about my health history, the kind of awkward questions about visits to Africa and sexual history. I quickly learned that I had been identified as a preliminary match for a man in his 50s. I didn’t learn much else about the man. I needed to take no immediate action; the next step, I was told, was to undergo blood work when I got back home.

For a moment, I’d thought I was about to save someone’s life.

How I came to be in that moment dated back to a story I’d written in January 2009. At the time, I was sports editor of our former Brookhaven Town paper, the North Shore Sun. I had written a column about Alex Mele, a Longwood High School sophomore who was battling acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). He had always been an avid baseball player. The story was heartbreaking in so many ways. His mother, Lisa, had died in 2007 of congestive heart failure at 39. His father, Lou, held the family together, which included younger twins. Jake and Leah were 11 when I wrote the story. Leah is now a sophomore on the LIU/Post softball team.

I wrote about how baseball had become the motivating goal for Alex as he spent day after day in a hospital room. He had undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy and was in line for a bone marrow transplant. Shortly after that story was published, however, the donor backed out for unknown reasons. Alex needed another match. The Stony Brook University baseball team offered to help. I went to the hospital in March 2009 to follow up on Alex’s story as about a dozen players and some coaches from the team signed up to be bone marrow donors. The odds of anyone in the room matching Alex were minuscule. It was about raising awareness and the hope that perhaps, one day, someone would be a match for another child like Alex.

I was covering the event, but figured I might as well sign up, too. It’s incredibly simple. A cheek swab, some paperwork and that’s it.

“I don’t want to see any other kid go through this,” Alex said that day.

The odds of ever being a match are slim, which makes it so vital that as many people as possible register, particularly in the 18-44 age group.

Alex eventually did get a bone marrow transplant, but after 15 months fighting the disease, it wasn’t enough. He died in August 2010, one week shy of his 17th birthday.

I think back to my brief interactions with Alex from time to time. The phone call I received about being a match never ultimately panned out and I didn’t become a donor. I never found out why. Perhaps someone else was a better match.

In 2012, another man who’d signed up during Alex’s drive got a similar phone call. Mike Marron, the Seawolves’ pitching coach at the time, had been determined to be a 100 percent match for someone needing a donor. He underwent a blood platelet extraction procedure to help save someone’s life. I hadn’t realized that until recently, when I discovered an article the school published five years ago. I’d often wondered if anyone from that day had gone on to donate. The donation process for a match involves one of two types of procedures: donating either peripheral blood stem cells or marrow. It’s a commitment that takes 20 to 30 hours spread out over a four- to six-week period, according to the National Marrow Donor Program.

This week I got an email from the Be the Match Registry noting it was my eight-year anniversary of signing up. I haven’t gotten another call since that night in Saratoga Springs, but it was a welcome reminder to update my contact information.

Top photo: In 2009, members of the Stony Brook University baseball team attended a bone marrow drive to support Alex Mele, a Longwood student with acute myelogenous leukemia.

The author is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].