Alisa Lara may have given the gift of life, but the soft-spoken University of Texas-Pan American student does not consider herself a hero.
"It isn't about me. This is about helping someone else," Lara said.
Back in February, the 20-year-old sophomore history major was in class when a batch of students from Texas State University in San Marcos walked in to recruit bone marrow donors. Lara, a frequent blood donor, signed up immediately.
"At the end of the day I went to the engineering department and signed a few papers and they took a swab of my mouth. I got a T-shirt and then I walked out and kind of forgot about it," she said.
In April, Lara received a surprising phone call from the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center (STBTC) informing her she was a bone marrow match for a 49-year-old woman battling leukemia.
"I'm there basically hyperventilating and debating in my head, 'Do I do it? Yes or no?' But the right thing finally won out and I said I would do it. I needed to do this," Lara said.
Her decision to save a total stranger is uncommon, considering the sobering statistics.
"Every year more than 10,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with life-threatening blood diseases for which a marrow or stem cell transplant may offer the only chance for a cure," said Roger Ruiz, community relations specialist for STBTC. "What Alisa did is amazing. Not many people can say that they gave someone a second chance at life."
Each year, thousands of racial minorities die from leukemia and other blood illnesses because of the low number of minority donor volunteers. Unfortunately, there is only a 30 percent chance of finding a match within a patient's family.
"There are people out there who need your help. I would want it done for me. If I was this person I would want it done for me and so that's why I did it. Hopefully other people will think the same way," Lara said.
She was asked to participate in a bone marrow donation known as peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation. It is a non-surgical procedure done in an outpatient clinic. Lara first received daily injections of a medication called filgrastim for five days. The drug boosts the number of blood-forming cells in the bloodstream.
In July, Lara and her family traveled from their home in Donna to STBTC in San Antonio. Her o-positive blood was removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood was then transferred back to her through the other arm.
Lara said except for a bit of boredom that set in during the six-hour PBSC procedure, it was entirely worth it.
"At first it was kind of overwhelming, and then when the actual procedure is done, it is a cakewalk. More people should do it," she said. "It was almost painless. I got tired and had a little back pain and joint pain but I could deal with it."
She calls it a small sacrifice when thousands of patients hope and pray daily for a bone marrow donor who can make their life-saving transplant possible.
"Every person that joins the registry gives patients hope. You may never be identified as a match for someone, or you might be one of a number of potential matches. But you may also be the only one on the registry who can save a patient," Ruiz said.
Lara hopes her experience will help the community realize that every person has the power to save a life.
"It takes a cotton swab and two seconds to swab your mouth and hopefully you can make a difference in someone's life," Lara said. "I spent six hours in this room with them taking out my blood but she (the recipient) is the real hero. It is not just for UTPA students, but for everyone everywhere. Just sign up."
STBTC is an authorized donor center of the Be The Match Program®. For more information on the marrow/stem cell program call (210) 731-5513, or visit marrow.org to join the national marrow donor program.
Learn more about Lara's donation in this video: