UNK linebacker Drew Wagner balances football, stem cell donation

Drew Wagner, a linebacker for the UNK football team, donates stem cells at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. His blood was removed through a catheter in his arm then cycled through a machine that separated stem cells from other blood cells.

Writer: Sara Giboney
Office: 308.865.8529
email: giboneys2@unk.edu

By SARA GIBONEY
UNK Communications

KEARNEY – Physically exhausting. Mentally demanding.

The grind of preseason football camp is not an ideal time to donate stem cells. But for University of Nebraska at Kearney linebacker Drew Wagner, there was no better time to find out he might be a leukemia patient’s last chance at living.

“I would have been willing to put that guy’s life over football, obviously,” said Wagner, who balanced practices with needles and hospital beds.

Just weeks before UNK practices began, Wagner found out that his DNA was a match for a 36-year-old male with leukemia.

“When I got the letter it was cool and crazy at the same time, but I was also nervous because I knew with donating marrow you can miss the whole football season,” said Wagner, a junior recreation management major from Madison.

University of Nebraska at Kearney linebacker Drew Wagner had his DNA matched with a 36-year-old leukemia patient and donated stem cells while going through two-a-day football practices. “I would have been willing to put that guy’s life over football, obviously,” said Wagner.

Luckily, the patient only needed stem cells, which meant Wagner missed just a few days of football practice before the season opener.

Wagner joined the National Bone Marrow Registry after seeing Jim Munroe, an illusionist, perform on campus last spring.

Munroe was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of leukemia in 2008. Just a year before his diagnosis, a 19-year old girl joined the bone marrow registry after having her cheek swabbed at a summer rock concert. The girl saved Munroe’s life by becoming his bone marrow donor.

While performing at UNK, Munroe encouraged students to join the National Bone Marrow Registry. Wagner was one of hundreds of UNK students who got their cheeks swabbed and joined the registry that day.

But he was the only student who received an email from the National Bone Marrow Program’s “Be The Match” just months later.

To prepare for the stem cell donation, Wagner got a physical exam at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha to make sure he was healthy enough to donate. Wagner was then given daily injections of filgrastim, a drug that causes the bone marrow to make and release stem cells into the blood, for one week. Side effects of the injections are bone pain, headaches, fever and tiredness.

Wagner said he was sore, achy and tired the week he received the injections. “That was a challenge having to do that during fall camp two-a-days for football,” he said.

Just a week before the first Loper game of the season, Wagner traveled to UNMC to donate his stem cells. Wagner’s blood was removed through a catheter in his arm then cycled through a machine that separated stem cells from other blood cells.

“It really drains you. It makes you feel weak and groggy,” he said. Wagner repeated the process for two days.

He took a few days off from football practice to regain his strength and returned to the field just a few days before the first game on Sept. 5.

Wagner said the process was made easier with the support of his coaches and teammates.

“Coach (Darrell) Morris and coach (Bob) Crocker have been really cool about it. They’ve been behind me the whole way,” he said.

Wagner recently contacted Munroe on Facebook to let him know that he had donated his stem cells to a stranger. The entertainer replied saying, “That is the most amazing thing you could have sent to me.”

If he gets a call to donate again, Wagner knows what he will do.

“I’d definitely donate again,” Wagner said.

“It’s really neat just to know that I helped somebody out.”

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