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Granting the gift of life

Alumnus overcomes fear of needles, pandemic to donate bone marrow to cancer patient


 
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SUMMARY: Grant Bigman ('12) reflects on how his Madison Experience inspired him to donate marrow in the midst of a global pandemic.


By Ryan Boals (’17), alumni relations coordinator 

Grant Bigman (’12) credits his Madison Experience with inspiring him to continue Being the Change beyond his undergraduate involvement. As a student, Bigman dedicated himself to community service as a Student Ambassador, a First yeaR Orientation Guide (FROG), a leader in Make Your Mark On Madison (MYMOM), and by participating in two Alternative Break Program trips. He remains connected to the university by inspiring philanthropic engagement amongst fellow young alumni as a member of the Graduates Of the Last Decade (GOLD) Network Committee.

While at JMU, Bigman had a noteworthy affiliation with the university’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the international Jewish fraternity. Through this brotherhood, he learned of the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, an organization that champions a cure for blood cancer through cellular therapy.

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Through Bigman's affiliation with JMU's chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, he became a Gift of Life marrow donor.

Following graduation, Bigman served as an educational leadership consultant at AEPi headquarters following graduation, later transitioning to director of chapter services. In this role, he supervised operations for more than 180 undergraduate chapters across seven countries. “Every campus I visited, I encouraged chapters to host Gift of Life donor recruitment drives,” Bigman said, after becoming a registered donor himself. As of September 2020, AEPi has inspired 13,984 individuals to get swabbed, resulting in 468 donor matches. In his current role as the assistant director for Hillel at Virginia Tech, Bigman continues to encourage students and colleagues to get swabbed. 

In early 2020, nearly five years after becoming a donor, Bigman received a call from Gift of Life. He was a potential match for a 30-year-old man battling leukemia. He knew right away that he wanted to help. “I thought, 'I would want somebody to do this for me,'” he said. Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and his fear of blood, Bigman’s penchant for helping others instilled in him while at JMU, coupled with his Jewish faith, made deciding to donate easy.

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Bigman after the blood transfusion process, which is similar to donating plasma. 

Guided by pikuach nefesh, a principle in Jewish law that says the preservation of human life comes above all else, he chose to set aside his fear of needles and uncertainty surrounding the global pandemic. “It was like exposure therapy,” he said, making light of overcoming his anxiety. “I donated knowing I was helping this individual have a fighting chance against cancer.” 

Donating looks different in the time of COVID-19, as Gift of Life has pivoted their processes to heightened safety. Rather than flying Bigman to their national headquarters in Florida, the organization arranged for him to complete bloodwork near his residence in Blacksburg, Virginia. Following initial bloodwork and a physical, he traveled to a blood transfusion facility in Falls Church, Virginia, where doctors replicated stem cells from his bone marrow, supercharging his body and boosting his stem cell count in preparation for donation day.

Donating amidst the pandemic’s first few weeks added a layer of “eerie risk” to the decision. But cancer doesn’t pause for COVID-19. “I thought it was worth the risk,” Bigman said.

He praised Gift of Life for remaining communicative through the donation process. A nurse visited daily to administer shots and encourage him to stay hydrated. Gift of Life sent texts to check in, typically done in-person before current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social and physical distancing guidelines were instituted. The transfusion process was similar to donating plasma. A machine drew his blood, harvested the stem cells and channeled the blood back into his body. Bigman put the experience into perspective, saying his “three-hour inconvenience” gave a second chance at life to someone battling cancer for almost a decade.

Following the procedure, he avoided physical activity for 24 hours and stayed hydrated to flush his system. Gift of Life sent him care packages with various swag and a handwritten letter from founder and CEO Jay A. Feinberg. Gift of Life will continue to check with Bigman for three years.

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Bigman with his colleagues at Virginia Tech, where he is assistant director for Hillel. 

Bigman has the option to correspond with the recipient through Gift of Life as long as the laws of the individual’s home country permit. Following one year of correspondence and with permission from both parties, they may reveal their identities. In his work with AEPi, he has witnessed several “recipient reunions” at the fraternity’s international convention. “That was certainly on my mind as I went through the process, seeing those emotional reactions. It’s beautiful,” he said, noting he intends to begin corresponding with his recipient soon. 

A few months after the procedure, Bigman tested positive for COVID-19. Once he recovered, he visited the American Red Cross to donate convalescent plasma containing the antibodies needed to attack the virus and help ill patients. “I would have never done either procedure if not for my experiences both with AEPi and at JMU,” he said. In the future, he aims to donate blood regularly, a process he notes takes a mere 10 minutes compared to the lengthy procedures he has undergone.

Bigman is grateful for the opportunity to spread awareness. He wants his story to inspire others to take risks despite fear. “I got the phone call and thought, ‘I hate needles and I’ve never donated before.’ Then I thought, ‘If I don’t try now, I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to try again.’”

 

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Published: Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Last Updated: Tuesday, May 25, 2021

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