Cheekswab 2016: Rebirth in New York City

Speaking about
Speaking about Cheekswab at Hope Midtown

Reflecting back on 2012

When I started Cheekswab in 2012 I had no idea what to expect. I chronicled that process wholly on this blog — from literally the first day I started realistically thinking about the idea in May 2011 to my recap 2012 retrospective in January 2013, which chronicled 18 months of organizing, coordinating, speaking, blogging and actively pursuing Cheekswab outside of my job. 2012 was an amazing year in a lot of ways. Not only did we register way more in person donors at drives than I ever expected (463) but the website became a valuable resource for those across the world looking for more information. More than 10,000 independent visitors visited in 2012.

While I never planned to stop being active with Cheekswab, after 2012 I decided to focus on things in my personal life, including my career. remained on the internet and I actively responded to some emails and drive publicity requests but outside of an occasional blog post I no longer coordinated drives or speaking engagements. While my time was spent on other things (changing jobs, moving cities, getting married) bone marrow donation remained close to my heart. I knew once I was ready I would once again revisit Cheekswab.

Cheekswab in 2016: NYC

Now settled NYC residents, my wife Eunice and I have talked for years about finding a way to explore restarting Cheekswab in New York City. One of my main New Year’s resolutions for 2015 was to develop a mental model of how to do exactly that. By October the pieces began moving and I started once again reaching out to national organizations and revamping the website. The past several months have been a blur of coding, fact-checking, and making connections, but I’m happy to announce the official relaunch of Cheekswab in New York.

I have to give shout outs to several people who have been more than instrumental in getting Cheekswab off the ground:

  • Ron Jacob, Medical Director of SAMAR (South Asian Marrow Association of Recruiters). Ron’s organization serves as an official liaison for Be The Match. The impact of SAMAR’s work, not only in the greater New York area but nationwide, on the registration of South Asian donors is an incredible vision to aspire to for Cheekswab. Ron has answered every question, provided me with drive materials, and been an incredible friend throughout this entire process;
  • Drew Hyun and our entire community at Hope Midtown, who has encouraged us every step of the way and was willing to use their space and resources to host our first official bone marrow drive of 2016 on Sunday, March 6 2016 at Turtle Bay Music School (244 E 52nd St, New York, NY 10022) from 11am-2pm;

    EDIT [3/1/2016]: Due to a last minute venue emergency this bone marrow drive date has been postponed, likely until the following Sunday on 3/13.  We’ll keep you updated!

  • Steven Chi, a friend and talented graphic artist who has used his talents to help me with graphics for the website;
  • And finally my wife Eunice, who is my confidence when mine fails and reminds me how much Cheekswab means to me even when I forget.

We are super excited to see where Cheekswab can go in a place like New York, a city that manifests so much energy, diversity and potential. If there’s a student group, workplace or organization that you’re a part of and would like to schedule a bone marrow drive, please don’t hesitate to contact us!

A lack of minority donors is still a problem that we can solve in our lifetimes. Join the lottery to save a life today.

Dan Na,
February 2016

The First Year of Cheekswab

Pre-Launch Whiteboard
Pre-launch to-do list for

Admission: when I launched this website almost exactly a year ago, I was so nervous.

I had worked so many hours on this site. I’d spent Friday nights and Saturday afternoons at Starbucks, writing and re-writing the content of every page, sometimes walking to my car with effectively a paragraph of text after 4 hours of work. I knew the road was long but not insurmountable. I knew that God gave me the abilities to finish the content and technical details to push the site live. Much like my time in the hospital, my time creating Cheekswab was slow, and taken a day at a time. And in faith that one day those steps would not be in vain.

I remember putting the link to cheekswab on Facebook. That’s when the nerves were strongest. Would anyone care? Would anyone help, would anyone join? Were the hours and effort I put into this site all in vain? I had so many doubts. But I wrote the status and pasted the link. I took a deep breath and clicked “share.”

The support from friends and family was overwhelming.

The link was re-shared over and over (and over) again. Visitors begin to hit the site from around the world. I received emails and messages from people to lend their encouragement and support for the cause. And even greater than that, people joined the registry.

It was such an amazing day to be alive.

New Registrants Completing Forms
Signing up for the registry

I made a promise on my hospital bed. But it wasn’t just to myself; it was also to my nurses, my doctors, my family, my friends, everyone else I saw who was touched by this disease, and to God.

It was the acceptance of the burden of knowing the reality of cancer. It was the promise that because I now knew what it was like, I would never forget it. I would never turn a blind eye or a callous disregard to those who stood in my shoes. If I could do something about it, in my limited capacity as a non-medical professional, I would.

Speaking at a drive in February

I did a lot of things this year through Cheekswab that I never expected to do. I spoke publicly to more people than I ever expected for anywhere from 5-45 minutes at a time. I manned booths at conventions and shows. I put my face and my story out there for the scrutiny of others. I invested time and money into something I really believed in. I coordinated drive supplies, volunteers, and venues.

I became invested in the lives of people whom I’d never met from across the Internet. I watched people I care for pass away, and their friends and family members cope with the loss. I watched people I care for survive, with a newly appreciated love and vigor for life. I met people who donated marrow graciously to people they didn’t know, solely because “it was the right thing to do.” I met other fighters for the cause and heard their own inspirational stories, whether it was their own medical history, the death of a loved one or conviction placed within them by a friend.

Volunteers who help make drives possible

18 months ago Cheekswab was nothing but a dream. An idea I’d mention randomly to close friends and family, just to see if they’d give me a good reason not to follow through. It was one of those “wouldn’t it be nice” ideas, more idealistic fantasy than concrete plan. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t feel qualified, I didn’t think I had the necessary skills or personality.

Even after a year things are still very much a work in progress. But luckily since day one I haven’t walked this path alone. There’s been an incredible system of support, including BeTheMatch regional coordinator Juliette Williams, other contacts from Be The Match, and a tireless group of friends and supporters who are willing to help me staff drives/complete kits.

What a year it’s been; 463 new donors and over 10,000 independent visitors to in 2012. Here’s to new and even more exciting times in 2013, and even more saved lives.

Cheekswab has been a dream come true for me, and to everyone who has been involved in any way, shape or form, I thank you.

KCPC Salt and Light Bone Marrow Drive, Sunday, December 30, 2012

Location: Korean Central Presbyterian Church, Salt and Light Service (English Ministry Young Adults)
Address: 15451 Lee Hwy Centreville, VA 20121. Room 2120 (map)
Date/Time: After service on Sunday, December 30. Service begins at 2:30pm, so the drive should run from roughly 4-5pm.

I’ll be giving a short message on both Sunday, December 23 and Sunday, December 30 (drive day) related to my personal story in creating cheekswab and the need for bone marrow registrants. Given that Cheekswab officially launched almost exactly a year ago, a bone marrow drive on the second-to-last day of 2012 seems like an awesome way to end the year. It’s been an incredible run so far.

Here’s to more adventures, bone marrow registrants and saved lives in 2013! 🙂

Priscilla’s Donation Story

About a month ago a friend from the University of Virginia sent me an email entitled “awesome news.” It turns out that one of her friends who registered at the UVA bone marrow drive in January recently donated bone marrow to an unrelated patient at Georgetown Hospital! As this is the first new donor from a Cheekswab drive (that I know of) to be called to donate marrow, this was a huge deal. A few emails and a phone call later, I was introduced to Priscilla, a rising fourth year student at UVA who was willing to share her donation story.

Probably the most remarkable thing about talking to Priscilla was convincing her that her story was worth sharing in the first place. She was continually surprised that her marrow donation was a big deal at all. Because donating was such an obvious choice to her, she felt like she didn’t have much to say about her “decision” to do so. In her own words, “What decision? Why wouldn’t I do it?” I came to learn that it’s this kind of selflessness that characterizes Priscilla, in a nutshell.

But I reminded her that it’s not as easy a decision for many others, and that her experiences and thoughts as a college donor could really resonate with future donors who find themselves in similar circumstances. So without much further ado, I present Priscilla’s donation story.

(Mandatory disclaimer: As always these words reflect nothing but her own experiences, and with any medical procedure experiences may vary. But these words are 100% her own, with the exception of minor grammatical changes that were approved by Priscilla before publishing this post.)

Can you please introduce yourself and why you’re writing this post?

My name is Priscilla, and I am a 21 year old Korean American and finishing up my last year at the University of Virginia. I am writing this post to share about my experience of being a bone marrow donor — I hope it’ll provide some insight to those who may be thinking about donating in the future and encourage those who are not yet on the registry to join!

Please walk us through the day when you donated.

I was initially called to donate through Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC), which is the most common way to donate your stem cells to your recipient. Through this method, I was required to go into the clinic every morning for five days to receive an injection with a drug called Filgrastim. They would take my vitals, ask about any symptoms that I had and then administer the shot. The first two days of the Filgrastim were generally painless, and it was only the last three days when I experienced some recurring pain in my lower back and hips. However, I realized that as long as I kept myself moving, the pain would disappear so it was something that was definitely manageable.

On the fifth day, I was ready to donate my stem cells through a process called apheresis. After my last dose of Filgrastim, they hooked me up to a collecting machine that separated my stem cells away from the rest of my blood. This process usually takes about 4-6 hours, however, the process was cut short for me because I had an allergic reaction to the sterilizing gas inside the machine. This is neither common nor was it specifically related to the PBSC process itself, but it left me unable to donate non-surgically. Instead, I was scheduled to surgically donate marrow two days later in order for me to donate my stem cells to the recipient on time.

The morning I was scheduled to donate marrow, I was met by a representative from the hospital at 7 AM in my hotel lobby. I was then escorted to a room where I met the surgeon and anesthesiologist. After filling out consent forms and doing additional testing, I was given a relaxant and within a few minutes, I went to sleep. The next thing I remembered was waking up 2-3 hours later in the recovery room, with some soreness on my back. I had difficulty standing up without feeling nauseous and felt really weak from having low blood pressure, but I eventually gained some strength throughout the day just from rest and getting extra IV fluids.

The doctor met with me in the evening to discuss with me about how the surgery went. He told me that the bone marrow surgery was actually the fastest he had done in eight years since he finished in about 14 minutes, only needing to take about half of the marrow that they were expecting to take since my marrow was so concentrated with stem cells. He also told me at that time that I was actually a 99% match to my recipient and because of that, the marrow transplant that would occur the next day, would most likely go smoothly without any risk for graft-versus-host disease. I was very thankful for that and he just discussed my current condition and how to take proper care of myself after leaving the hospital. I stayed overnight, took a shower in the morning to get the bandage off my back, and then was discharged.

How did your family react to your decision to donate?

They didn’t think much of it at first when I got the initial phone call just because my dad had also received a similar call a few years ago. But following further testing, he didn’t turn out to be the most suitable match. However, after I was confirmed as a match and I informed my parents of my decision to donate, they did get a little concerned, but I think they respected my decision.

Were you worried about something going wrong?

Not initially, especially since there is not much risk associated with PBSC. However, I did get a little anxious about the surgical donation due to the general anesthesia, but other than that, I did not think too much about risky possibilities.

What exactly was the procedure that was performed?

Through the Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation, you receive five days of injections of Filgrastim, a drug that stimulates production of stem cells in your marrow and helps to move it into your bloodstream. On the fifth day, they do a simple collection through a process called apheresis that takes approximately 4-6 hours (there are some clinics that separate the collection process into two consecutive days). Just as if you were donating platelets or plasma, they hook you up to a machine, where they stick a needle in both your arms, and begin to separate the stem cells from your blood—the blood goes out in one arm and gets returned back to you in the other. PBSC is still considered “research” due to the use of Filgrastim in the donor, so consent forms to participate are required to be signed before donating.

Surgically donating bone marrow is a procedure that simply requires a day to donate. The surgeons will normally give you general anesthesia that should wear off in about two hours. During those two hours, the surgeons will lay you on your stomach and make two small holes on the surface of your skin and about fifteen smaller holes on each the right and left side of your pelvic bone. They then insert a hollow needle with a syringe attached to draw out your marrow.

Did it hurt? What would you say to someone worried about the physical pain?

For PBSC donation, the only pain that I experienced was from the effects of the Filgrastim injections. It is different for everybody, but I experienced fatigue and pain in my lower spine and hips. However, like I said earlier, I realized that movement helped keep the pain dampened. Additionally, many apheresis clinics require a mandatory intake of Tylenol around the clock to help with the pain.

As for the bone marrow donation, the actual procedure does not hurt since it is under general anesthesia. It is only after the procedure where you may experience some pain. For me, the pain was not as bad as I thought it would be. The pain was initially moderate with some aches but after a few days, it was more of a discomfort than anything and it did not really hinder me from doing anything in particular.

If you are worried about the physical pain, I would say that in my experience, it does not hurt as much as people think. It is definitely tolerable and Be the Match and your doctors will make sure that you are as comfortable as possible, providing a narcotic and other pain relievers. I personally did not take any pain relievers and still felt as though the pain was not bad at all.

How long was the recovery process?

The recovery process was pretty quick. It took about two weeks to fully recover from any physical pain that I had in my back and about a month to get over fatigue and anemia for which I just needed to take iron pills for supplement. I think the hardest challenge in regards to recovery was getting around especially since I had to walk around my college campus every day. You will probably end up walking much slower than normal and get tired more quickly. There is also the inconvenience of not being able to hold and carry anything more than 20 lbs.

Would you donate again?

Yes, I would definitely donate again. The process is easy when compared to the consequences of not donating bone marrow to someone who needs it. It is unfortunate to hear that many people do not get to live out their full lives because they cannot find a donor in time although matches exist. Thus, more than “saving someone’s life,” I saw donating bone marrow as helping the recipient to avoid a possible deadly consequence of their disease, one that is truly avoidable and not necessarily an inevitable, normal outcome to their disease. In addition, Be the Match is really great at making sure you are comfortable and encounter the least amount of inconvenience during the process. Thus, you lose very little to donate and in return, the recipient gains a new life.

All things considered, what do you feel about what you’ve done?

To be honest, I don’t feel like what I’ve done is anything noteworthy. I believe that donating is the right thing to do, especially knowing that you would expect that if you or your loved one were in the position of needing bone marrow. We are all human beings, and I feel it is our duty to help each other out, especially when the stakes are so high.

A Recap of April

So the updates to this site became significantly more sparse during the month of April. That was a result of a few factors:

  • I didn’t host any drives in April, so there weren’t many drive announcements or recaps to highlight.
  • I spent a couple weeks developing the Donation Stories section, which Dennis was so gracious in lending his story to. True story: Dennis was at the hospital a couple weeks ago to donate white blood cells (does his generosity ever stop?) and he was randomly fist-bumped in the hall by a girl who had seen his bone marrow donation video! She was there herself to donate marrow, and said the video really helped her out. 🙂
  • I was pretty burnt out from the end of last month, where I helped coordinate four drives in two weeks (including three in the last week). At times I’m still trying to find a balance between work, Cheekswab, and being 26.

But here we are in May, and it’s been four and a half months since launch, and things are still going strong. While I can’t promise a constant stream of updates into the future, Continue reading “A Recap of April”