Posted: 07/14/2011 | Last updated: July 14, 2011 at 11:36 AM
BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Linebacker Mike Groome was Lehigh’s leading tackler in the 2010 season. With 131 stops, including a career-high 16 against rival Lafayette Groome paved the way for Lehigh’s defense and earned All-Patriot League and All-America recognition for his efforts in leading the Mountain Hawks to a Patriot League title. This summer, Groome tackled a new challenge: donating stem cells to help save someone else’s life.
For the last three years, the Lehigh football program has spearheaded an on-campus bone marrow testing drive, which benefits the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be The Match Foundation. Lehigh’s drive was organized by assistant football coach Donnie Roberts, who credits Villanova head coach Andy Talley, who first became involved in the national bone marrow donor drive in 1992, and has helped get many other college football programs involved.
“I initially became involved through the football team registry,” Groome says. “It’s one of those things were everyone signs up and gets involved right from their freshman year.”
Roberts adds, “When we present this program to the players they really attack the cause. Maybe it’s because most of our players have or know someone who has been affected with cancer or other bone blood diseases. We ask, ‘If you had the potential to save a life would you do it?’ And they always step up.”
Lehigh’s 2011 drive took place in late April, on campus at Lamberton Hall. In the previous two years, three Lehigh student-athletes were identified as potential donors. Around the time of this year’s drive, Katie Koropey ’11, a one-time lacrosse student-athlete, was in a New York hospital beginning the stem cell extraction process to help save the life of a 62-year old female leukemia patient.
Each year approximately 10,000 people in the United States need an unrelated marrow or corblood transplant; but less than half of those people receive the transplant they need.
There are approximately 20 million people worldwide who are registered as potential marrow donors, yet there are only about 250 matches found each year, making it a 1-in-80,000 chance that a registered donor will be a match.
Lehigh head coach Andy Coen considers it an honor for the Mountain Hawks program to be a part of the bone marrow testing initiative. His players have been educated on the importance of getting people into the donor registry and the widespread need of donors from a number of different racial and ethnic backgrounds to create more opportunities for prospective matches.
“I look at our drive every year as a way for our players to take ownership in this important initiative and show that they care about helping people," Coen said. Their slogan, ‘Get in the Game to Save a Life’ is perfect. To be successful as an athlete you have to be ready and willing to get in there and do your best. This drive allows our players to do just that. They work together, engage people in the Lehigh community and are active participants in helping save lives. I am very proud of what our program has been able accomplish over the past few years.”
The testing process is easy enough: Fill out a simple health history questionnaire and allow a technician to collect a cheek swab. Members of Lehigh’s football program have been participating for the last three years, and this time it was Groome who was identified as a potential match.
“I’ve actually been contacted every year I’ve been a part of the program,” Groome explains. “I’ve always gone through the blood work, but this year I was called to actually go into New York and get more extensive tests. I had to make sure the timeframe was right, and once I reached the end of the school year I decided to do it over the summer.”
After further testing, Groome was cleared to proceed with the stem cell donation process, which took place at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center in June. His decision to go forward with the process came with wide levels of support from the Lehigh football program.
“I was proud of Mike when he said he had been chosen and was going to be a donor,” explained Coen. “Here you have an All-America caliber athlete who was very excited to help save someone's life which he had no connection with at all. This speaks volumes for how Mike was raised and what type of person he is. Mike has developed into a very fine player on the field and it is great to see that he also understands the bigger role he can play in the game of life.”
For five days leading up to the procedure, Groome took injections of a drug that raised his white blood cell count. From there it was on to the Mount Sinai for the six hour procedure. Groome was hooked up to a machine where a needle extracted blood from one arm, separated the stem cells and returned the remainder of the blood into his other arm. Although it was difficult for the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Groome to remain still without moving his arms for six hours, it was overall a rewarding process and was much easier to deal with than a traditional bone marrow transplant.
“There were some big needles,” Groome says. “Obviously it can be tough to lie down for six hours and not be able to move your arms. I was a little sore when it was done but I didn’t experience any side effects. After the procedure the doctors monitored me constantly, but everything was back to normal within a week.”
At the moment, Groome does not know who the recipient of his stem cells will be. The donation process remains anonymous for one year and after that both parties can meet if it is mutually agreeable. Now, Groome can shift focus to the 2011 season, where he will serve as one of the captains for a Lehigh team in search of its tenth Patriot League title. All the while relishing the opportunity he was given to save someone else’s life.
“It’s not as scary or painful as everyone thinks,” Groome says of the procedure. “It was pretty easy to go through with. I’ve been back in full swing .The procedure hasn’t set me back at all. I’ve gone full steam ahead in getting ready for the season.
Groome concludes, “It’s a great honor to be identified as a match and to actually go through with everything. I know there are a lot of people that are dealing with illnesses that can benefit from something like this. It’s an awesome feeling to be able to help someone out.”