HAVERHILL — You don't often get a chance to help save a life, but for Nick Habeeb that opportunity came earlier in the year when he got a call from Be The Match, a national registry for stem cell donors.
He volunteered without hesitation because, as he says, it was his chance to help save the life of a woman who is battling the same kind of disease that took the life of his aunt this year.
"Since I was already in the registry, Be The Match called me to ask if I would be a donor," Habeeb said. "I've been told that some people have been in the donor registry for years and have never been called."
Habeeb, 19, graduated from Consentino School then attended Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School, where he studied graphics design. He graduated from Whittier Tech in 2013 and began attending Bunker Hill College that fall, where he is studying video game design.
On June 11, Habeeb was admitted into Boston's Brigham and Woman's Hospital where he willingly started the roughly seven-hour procedure to harvest stem cells from his blood for a complete stranger who suffered from leukemia - a cancer of the blood.
In the days leading up to the procedure, he received multiple injections that stimulated bone marrow to create and release stem cells into his blood. The night before the procedure was a tense one. He wondered if it would hurt and prayed that it would work.
On the day of the procedure, nurses attached an intravenous line into his left arm. His blood flowed into a machine through a process known as "apheresis," which captured his stem cells then returned his blood to his body.
"I just had to sit all day and not move," he said. "It was uncomfortable, but I really didn't feel any pain."
He passed the hours by watching television, surfing the internet with his smart phone and chatting with his parents, David and Christine Habeeb, and his grandmother, Tina Habeeb.
Following the procedure, Nick Habeeb headed home where he promptly fell asleep.
"The next day I spoke to almost everyone in my family and told them I hope the procedure worked and that the woman will better," he said.
If the procedure works, Habeeb's stem cells will take over the recipient's stem cells and she will assume his blood type. A year must pass before the woman will have the option of meeting Habeeb.
He said he hopes that one day he will get a call from the woman.
Habeeb is familiar with this important life-saving procedure because on April 1, his aunt, Cathy Habeeb Sheehan, 44, of Boxford, died from acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a fast-moving cancer of the blood.
Habeeb's uncle, Christopher Habeeb, was his sister's stem cell donor when she developed mutated genes that weakened the successful transplant.
Nina Habeeb said that because you can't use the same donor twice with the same patient, the search was on to find Cathy Habeeb Sheehan another donor match. There was no match in the National Donor Register for her. Family and friends, with the guidance and support of Be The Match, started new donor drives in search of a life-saving match for her but to no avail. No match could be found.
Nick Habeeb helped out at these drives and was the first one to get swabbed at the very first family and friends drive in Salisbury last November. While the efforts generated more than 500 new people added to the National Register and three donor matches, none were a match for his aunt Cathy.
"I really wanted to help someone who suffered from the same thing my aunt did," Nick Habeeb said. "I guess I was the lucky one."
If you are diagnosed with a blood cancer like leukemia, or an immune system or genetic disease, multiple myeloma, sickle cell diseases or other diseases, a stem cell, bone marrow or cord blood transplant may be a treatment option.
Tina Habeeb said it is estimated that 70 percent of those called as a donor match refuse when the time comes. She said it may be due to the emotional and immediate need to help a loved one at the time an illness strikes is far different from being called years later, when your own crisis has been resolved and the motivation has waned or the process interferes with their current life or work schedules.
"Swabbing is one thing," Tina Habeeb said. "Agreeing to an actual transplant for a complete stranger should have given Nick reason to pause but it did not. In fact, the process energized him."
"Nick is an intelligent, remarkable and deeply caring young man,” she added.
If you are interested in being registered in the National Donor Register, visit www.bethematch.org, call 1-888-999- 6743 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, and learn about how easy it is to take a simple mouth swab, mail it back or participate in a local donor drive and be ready to help to save a life.
If you are interested in the National Donor Register, visit www.bethematch.org, call 1-888-999- 6743 or email email@example.com, and learn about how easy it is to take a simple mouth swab, mail it back or participate in a local donor drive and be ready to help to save a life.