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Inspired to collect lifesaving DNA

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Mary Andom
  • 446th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

After learning a colleague’s son was battling leukemia and needed a lifesaving bone marrow transplant, one Rainier Wing member sprang into action.

Senior Master Sgt. Michelle Helpenstell, 446th Airlift Wing Security Forces Logistics Superintendent and King County corrections officer, researched how she could donate her bone marrow and came across the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program called Salute to Life.

Since 1991, Salute to Life has registered more than one million U.S. military personnel, dependents, and Department of Defense civilian employees to become bone marrow and stem cell donors.

“I am Security Forces, we save lives,” Helpenstell said. “But this is different anyone can save a life and have a direct impact.”

Without hesitation, Helpenstell joined the registry. But she was compelled to do more.

“I picked up the phone and called the headquarters office and asked how to start a donor drive here,” she said.

Weeks later, she received everything needed: informational pamphlets, manila folders equipped with buccal (cheek swab) kits and instructions on how to sign other members up.

Helpenstell’s efforts culminated in a base-wide bone marrow donor recruitment drive scheduled Jan. 3-4, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at McChord Field Base Exchange. Designated 446th Airlift Wing representatives will also be available to register personnel and collect kits during January’s Unit Training Assembly, Jan. 5-6.

She also spread the message by speaking at unit briefings to solicit help. As a result, sixteen volunteers stepped up to serve as unit representatives for the drive.

The process to register can be done in a manner of minutes. Interested registrants, between the ages of 18 and 60, will fill out a consent form, health history information and provide a cheek swab sample. The packets will be returned to unit representatives for processing and submission to Salute to Life.

For some the process stops there. For a small percentage of registrants who are found to be a match they will be contacted immediately to provide a full medical exam. Donors could provide bone marrow within a few weeks or months of being contacted.

According to, donation takes place in a matter of two ways. The first is the traditional marrow donation where an individual goes to a hospital and under anesthesia marrow cells are extracted from the hip bone with a needle.  

The second method is referred to as peripheral blood stem cell, or PSBC, donation, a five-day process in which  individuals spend several hours with an apheresis machine – which takes blood from one arm, separates out some of the cells, and returns the rest of the blood to the other arm.

While Helpenstell acknowledged the risks involved, she emphasized a much greater reward.

“It is a big decision, but I don’t know anything more rewarding than this,” she said. “It’s a great feeling knowing you can save someone’s life by doing something small. You are changing the lives of families.”

For more information on the Salute to Life program go to