Giving for the Greater Good

In 2008, Rhonda Christensen (’97 Ph.D.) received a life-saving stem cell transplant. Since then, she’s made it her mission to sign up donors through the Be the Match registry, with a special focus on diversity.
Written by: 
Erin Cristales

here are two dates Rhonda Christensen (’97 Ph.D.) will never forget. The first is November 20, 2007, when the research professor in UNT’s Department of Learning Technologies learned the mysterious bruises that dotted her skin were the result of acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that interferes with the production of red and white blood cells and platelets. The second is June 4, 2008, when, at Baylor University Medical Center, she received a life-saving stem cell transplant -- one that has kept her cancer-free for more than a decade.

Elizabeth Jordan and Rhonda Christensen stand next to a Be the Match sign.
Elizabeth Jordan (left) and Rhonda Christensen presented together at a Texas Water Development Board-hosted marrow registry event in Austin in January 2019.

But there’s a lot that happened in that five-month interim. Christensen underwent chemotherapy and blood transfusions, but her platelet counts continued to plummet, landing her in the ICU. Doctors recommended a transplant. Her brother and sister were tested but to no avail -- unsurprising, considering family members are a match only 25% of the time. As luck would have it, there were two potential matches in the registry. One was unavailable. But the other, Elizabeth Jordan -- a doctoral student at the University of Southern California -- was a perfect match.

“When you donate bone marrow, you’re giving someone a second chance at life,” says Christensen, who also is co-director of UNT’s Institute for the Integration of Technology into Teaching and Learning. “And it’s very possible that you might be someone’s only match.”

To say that Christensen has fully embraced her second chance at life is an understatement. Since 2008, she’s volunteered with Be the Match, the largest and most diverse bone marrow registry in the world, hosting numerous drives on campus. This year, Be the Match will receive 10% of internal sponsorship funds at UNT’s Equity and Diversity Conference to bring awareness to the health disparity that exists when it comes to donations in the Black, Asian and Hispanic ethnic communities.

“The main drive right now is to get more diverse people into the registry because those needing transplants can only match with someone from their same ethnic background,” Christensen says. “Imagine if you’re half Asian and half Black -- matching two types of ethnicities gets even more complicated. So the goal is to get the most ethnic diversity in the registry as possible.”

Christensen says it’s also key that those registering are committed to seeing the process through. Signing up for the registry is simple, requiring only a health-history questionnaire and cheek cell swab for tissue typing. Donors in the 18- to 44-year-old range are ideal, and some medical conditions do preclude eligibility. For those who may be called upon to donate, the process is typically painless with minor side effects. Any inconvenience, Christensen says, is far outweighed by the emotional benefits.

“You know, think about if it was your mother or your sister or your brother who needed a stranger to step up and save their life,” she says. “What would you hope for? It’s so important for people to realize the impact they can have.”

See Christensen meet her donor for the first time.

Continue Reading