Presented by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

When Zoe Merritt signed up to be a bone marrow donor, she had no idea that just a few months later she would have the opportunity to save a child’s life.

Nor could she have predicted a global pandemic would raise the stakes -- and the risks -- of her donation.

But Merritt, a 28-year-old program coordinator for wellness and prevention at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, believes that things happen for a reason. And once she learned she was a match, she never wavered from her decision to take the leap and provide a potentially life-saving donation.

“It was all meant to happen the way it did,” Merritt said.

Merritt first learned about donating bone marrow in a weekly newsletter ANTHC circulates among its employees. The newsletter explained that Alaska Native people are underrepresented in the DKMS registry, an international database of potential bone marrow and stem cell donors.

As an Alaska Native person, “if you don’t have anyone in your family that is a match for you, it’s a pretty slim chance of finding someone on the registry,” Merritt said. Merritt is from Kotzebue, and she is both Inupiaq and Aleut. She saw a chance to help, so she signed up.

Bone marrow transplants are used to treat blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma, and blood and marrow disorders like sickle cell disease and anemias. About 30 percent of people diagnosed with these illnesses are able to find matching donors within their family, but the rest -- 70 percent -- rely on strangers to donate. And finding a match is no easy feat.

“Being a match is pretty rare,” said Kathy Koller, research nurse supervisor at ANTHC and Merritt’s colleague. “There are hundreds of biomarkers they have to look at.”

Merrit signed up online, received an oral swab kit in the mail, and sent it back in late 2019. She was warned she might wait decades to be called as a potential match -- or she might never be called at all.

Just three months later, in January, Merritt was notified that she might be a potential match. She had her blood drawn for more testing. Within two weeks, she got word that she was a perfect match for a young child.

Merritt’s colleague, Registered Nurse Flora Sapp, watched with pride as Merritt went through the donation process.

“I was like, wow, that is awesome,” Sapp said.

Merrit traveled to California in early 2020 intending to donate bone marrow in the spring. Everything was going as planned.

“And then the pandemic happened,” Sapp said.

Suddenly Merritt was weighing not only the risks of the procedure, but the pandemic. Family members worried for her safety. But the child’s illness was such that waiting would have likely been fatal.

Merritt, who has a four-year-old daughter, said she never seriously considered backing out of the process.

“These parents are probably so happy their child has a chance. And if it was my kid, I would hope a stranger would do the same thing,” Merritt said.

Instead of a bone marrow donation, doctors recommended Merritt give stem cells, a process that doesn’t compromise the immune system in the same way. Stem cells can also be frozen, unlike bone marrow, Merritt explained. That allowed for more flexibility for the receiving patient.

Merritt traveled to California again for the procedure, which involves a series of injections that make the body shed stem cells, which are then extracted from the blood. Normally a companion would have been able to accompany her, but because of COVID-19, Merritt went alone. She was nervous but said the medical team was excellent and made her feel at ease.

Afterward, Merritt returned to Alaska, followed travel quarantine restrictions, and rested. A month later her energy levels were back up. And she eventually got word that the child had received her stem cells.

Merritt knows the idea of giving bone marrow or stem cells can be intimidating. But the entire process is voluntary, and donors can change course even on the day of their donation, she said.

“After it’s all said and done, it’s so rewarding to know that you were able to help someone else and give someone a new opportunity at life that they may not find anywhere else,” Merritt said.

Merritt may never meet the child she helped. If both parties consent, they can learn each other’s identities after one year. For now, she continues her work in tobacco cessation with ANTHC. Koller believes Merritt’s tireless efforts as a health researcher were reflected in her decision to donate.

“This was a true commitment to people, to humanity, to honoring others and respecting life, and saying ‘this is an important thing to do,’” Koller said.

“It grounds you,” Sapp said of watching everything unfold. “It’s like, wow, there are people in this life that think about other people and their perils, or their worries. And that’s Zoe. She always wants to help.”

Merritt hopes her story will encourage others to sign up for the registry.

“Who knows, maybe there’s someone out there who has a child and they’re waiting for a match,” Merritt said. “It could be you.”

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.