By Elaine Alfaro
It all started with a middle school friendship, untapped free time, and a life-changing nonprofit organization needing volunteers.
Brenda Patrick, originally from the Bay Area but now a local in La Mesa, sought a new avenue for her spare time after retiring from a lifelong career in nursing. It turned out her best friend since seventh grade would connect her to her retirement vocation.
She introduced Patrick to Be The Match, a nonprofit organization that plays a role in every bone marrow and blood stem cell transplant in the U.S.
Patrick left retirement in Oct. 2020 and has since traveled as a volunteer Be the Match courier to almost 20 states — transporting blood marrow and stem cells to patients in need. She even traveled on New Year’s Day this year.
After her extensive career in nursing and, specifically, a decade working in the kidney transplant department at Kaiser in San Francisco, it was a natural transition for Patrick.
“The whole concept of transplant and all of that is very familiar to me,” said Patrick.
However, Be The Match showed her a new vantage point in the transplant process.
“My first journey was to a children’s hospital, and I was so nervous about getting the paperwork right,” said Patrick. “Until you do a trip no matter how much experience, no matter how old you are, it’s still nerve-wracking at first.”
As a part of the job, Patrick must fill out a series of paperwork detailing the donor and recipient numbers, infectious disease results, etc. Patrick is additionally tasked with carrying onto the plane the medical products while flying.
“I’m given a satchel and inside it you have a cooler and ice blocks,” said Patrick. “There’s a specific way you have to prepare it before you leave. I carry a backpack and just the satchel.”
Amid this new transition and learning process, Patrick embarked on her first trip during the pandemic when vaccines were not available.
“Be The Match was really needing people who were willing to do this and could do this,” said Patrick. “Prior to vaccinations, you were really taking a chance by bringing COVID-19 home to loved ones. A lot of people who volunteer happen to be associated with somebody who got a bone marrow transplant. They were extremely cautious and a lot of people stopped traveling.”
With over a year under her belt, she’s adjusted to pandemic complications within crowded airports and limited space, all while maintaining composure and organization.
“What’s required of this job is paying attention to detail, being able to think on your feet if something happens, and not letting things rattle you,” said Patrick.
This volunteer work, even within an ever-changing environment, has changed the trajectory of her retirement life for good— especially as she reminisces on her first trip.
“It still kind of chokes me up,” said Patrick. “I was so involved in thinking about what I had to do and getting things right that it didn’t dawn on me that I was making a delivery to a child and that kid was going to get a transplant. It’s not till you’re completely done that you think, ‘Somebody in the next day or two is going to get a transplant and it’s going to save their life.’”
From coast to coast, Patrick helps change the lives of hundreds of patients. However, she has never actually met any of them, and according to her, that is okay.
“I don’t need to meet them, just to know that the little part that I played actually helped,” said Patrick.
In addition to learning how to do the paperwork or setting up her transport satchel, Patrick said she learned the most from witnessing others’ willingness to help strangers.
“I think that the main thing [I’ve learned] is how selfless some people are,” said Patrick. “They’re not giving it to a family member, they’re giving it to a stranger.”
There is one trip in particular that remains ingrained in her memory because of a demonstration of generosity.
“I was sitting there waiting in the lobby for the medical products and this family comes out and there was this boy – he didn’t look older than 15 though he had to be 18 [for the procedure],” said Patrick. “He had on a shirt that said ‘I just donated.’ Here it was 7:30 p.m. at night, in the middle of winter, and he had been there all day donating to somebody he didn’t know. That’s been the biggest lesson: how important donation of any kind is and that people are continuing to do it.”
If you want to learn more about Be The Match or get involved with volunteer opportunities, visit their website at www.bethematch.org.
— Elaine Alfaro is a journalism student at Point Loma Nazarene University and a former intern for the La Mesa Courier.