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Winder firefighter saves lives on and off the job
Josh Kemerling holds up the bag of stem cells he donated.

Winder firefighter Josh Kemerling looked at the idea of being a bone marrow donor as not too different from what he does during his day job.

“I told my wife, friends, that having spent 13 years in a profession that saves lives, that (being a donor) would be the most truly awesome way to save a life,” he recalled.'

He finally got that chance.

It took a while from when he initially joined the registry to get the chance, but last summer he received word that he was finally a match.

Kemerling, 34, remembers when he first received an email, and minutes later a phone call, telling him that he was a match. It was June 21.

Although it’d been years since he originally swabbed his cheek and joined the registry during a drive by a fellow firefighter, the topic was actually fresh on his mind.

“It’s ironic, I had just talked about it weeks before with another firefighter who had signed up as well,” he said. “It wasn’t more than two weeks before that we had talked about it.”

He didn’t hesitate when he finally got the call.

“Me worrying about the pain over saving another human being is pretty irrelevant.”

He was quickly sent to Athens, where he gave blood which was overnighted to Washington D.C. to confirm his being a match.

In a bone marrow registry of more than 10 million people, he was one of only two matches for the 59-year-old man in need of the transplant. When the other match was unable to be the donor, Kemerling was ready.

He doesn’t know the exact reason why, but the whole procedure was then placed on hold for months, while Kemerling continued his work at the city’s fire department.

When the process got going again, it went quickly.

First, he had to take an extended physical and fill out a 15-page health questionnaire. After a 20-day period to review the physical, on Nov. 1, he was almost ready for the procedure. At that point he had learned that he wouldn’t actually be donating his bone marrow, but his stem cells.

All who join the bone marrow registry are actually also available for the peripheral blood stem cell donation as well, as the same blood-forming cells in the bone marrow are in the circulating blood as well. The doctor attending the donor recipient decides which donation is more appropriate for his patient. Both treatments are generally for those suffering from leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anemia or other similar diseases.

To prepare for the process, Kemerling, from Nov. 1-4, took an injection of the drug filgrastim which helps to move more blood-forming cells out of the marrow and into the bloodstream, therefore creating more cells that can be given to the recipient. Kemerling admitted that the four days were tough.

“They tell you up front, some of this isn’t gonna be fun,” he said.

“The first two days didn’t hurt, then I had body aches, and it was like having a flu without fever.”

He called his patient rep, who worked with him throughout the entire process, and she informed him that the pain came from his muscles all over contracting to make more of the stem cells and extra blood.

“But at the end of the day it’s just a drop in the bucket of the pain (the recipient) has been through,” Kemerling noted.

He flew to Washington D.C. on Nov. 4 for the final step of the process.

The next morning he went to the medical center for the unique process of drawing the blood from his left arm, spinning it in a machine to separate the stem cells from the plasma, and then returning the blood to his right arm.

It was a 5-hour process — Kemerling gave well more than 1,000,000 stem cells — and he said the toughest part was not being able to move his left arm the entire time.

But he said the hospital staff was very appreciative throughout the process, which culminated in a courier taking the stem cells to an airport to be flown to the recipient.

The stem cells need to be given to the recipient within 12 hours.

He returned home soon after as an advocate for being on the bone marrow registry.

“I’m encouraging people to get on the registry. It costs you nothing,” he said. “The more people that we can build awareness the better.”

He’s even hosting a bone marrow registration drive via an online site:

The process is simple: Go online, fill out a questionnaire, receive an envelope with Q-Tip swab, return the swab in the envelope, and then you’re on the registry.

“Who knows, you may be the match with a 6-year old with leukemia,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone should be so stubborn not to want to save a human life.”

As for the life he helped save, he doesn’t know anything about him other than he’s a 59-year-old man.

He said he might soon receive information on how the process worked for him, and he’ll be sending a generic Christmas card — without his name — to his patient rep who will get it to the recipient via more channels, but it’s not until a year after the process that either he or the recipient would be allowed to find out any more information or contact one another.

Kemerling would like to someday put a name and a face on his mystery recipient.

“I’m hoping at the 1-year mark that I at least get to know he’s OK,” he said. “I’d be very open to put a face with this person.”

Until then, he said he’ll pray for the man and continue his drive to get more people to join the registry.

And he might not be finished.

Each donor can donate up to four times but only to two different recipients, meaning he could still possibly be a donor once again for the same recipient.

If so, he’ll be ready, not unlike when the fire bell rings.