Bone marrow transplant connects N.J. police officer with New Hampshire teen

Bret Mueller of Oaklyn, N.J. and Rick Nebling of Portsmouth, New Hampshire are blood brothers, though they have never met. Mueller’s decision to join the “Be the Match” bone marrow registry in 1998 now links the police officer and high school student for life.

After back surgery 14-years ago, nursing staff asked Mueller to register for the bone marrow registry. He didn’t think much of it until 12-years later when, in 2010, Mueller received a call notifying him that he was a possible match for someone.

After more testing, it was confirmed that Mueller was a match and on November 11, 2010, he underwent the procedure to donate some of his bone marrow. The entire process was “no big deal,” said Mueller who was back on his feet after only a day of rest.

A year and a half later, Mueller learned that his bone marrow was transplanted to 17-year-old Rick Nebling. Nebling had been diagnosed with Myleodysplastic Syndrome, a pre-leukemia condition also known as bone marrow failure.

“It wasn’t until I was able to put a face to the name that I realized how important the bone marrow registry drive is,” Mueller said. Nebling’s mother emailed Mueller, telling him that without his marrow donation, her son wouldn’t be alive.

Today, Nebling is doing great and has made a full recovery. The high school baseball player was unable to play last year but is helping to coach his team this year. He aspires to be a chef and is a “stand up young man,” Mueller said.

According to Be the Match, over 10,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with conditions, such as leukemia or lymphoma, for whom a bone marrow transplant is the best hope for a cure. However, only 30 percent of those needing a bone marrow transplant find a match within their family. That means that 70 percent rely on the bone marrow registry.

In 2009 and 2010, over 800 bone marrow transplants were completed in Philadelphia hospitals.

“No one realizes how many people are in need… It’s a life and death situation for many people who are looking for their match, just like Rick was,” he said.

Last month, Mueller organized a registry drive in his hometown with the support of his PBA Local 257. While promoting the event, Mueller asked Oakyln store owner, Susan Luckins if he could hang a poster in her window. When he showed her the poster, she cried, Mueller said.

Luckins’ son, Charles Massing, was due to receive a bone marrow transplant any day from a donor found through the registry. Massing, a 39-year-old married father of four, grew up in West Deptford. As a member of the Air Force, his mother says he has completed six tours of duty in the Middle East during his 18 years of military service. During one of his tours overseas, he became sick. Luckins described her son as a “number one dad” with a “warm heart and a great sense of humor.”

“My fear has always been that he would be injured or killed by a bomb or in a plane crash while fighting overseas,” Luckins said. “I never thought to consider fearing for his life through cancer.”

Massing found two potential donors through the registry. Last month, he underwent a transplant and he now has an 85% chance that his leukemia will not reoccur, Luckins said.

“I’m not a religious person, but I am a spiritual person and I believe God sends angels in the form of people and in time of need they’re miraculously there. These people who donate… they’re angels.”

Juliette Williams, representative for Be the Match of Northeast, said the registry is always looking for committed donors — people who are ready, willing and able to step up when called.

The process to sign up for the registry is simple, and includes only a short questionnaire and a cheek swab, Mueller said.

There are two ways to donate marrow, Williams said. The first is blood platelet collection, which is similar to giving blood. The second, less common process is actual marrow donation, which requires general anesthesia.

In addition to the physical commitment, Williams wants potential donors to know there is a time commitment as well. Approximately 30-40 hours over a six-week period are needed for appointments, commuting time and phone calls, though there is not something every day, just a few hours here and there each week.

It’s important that people signing up for the registry know up front what will be needed from them. Be the Match is a non-profit company and it costs $100 to process each registration. There is no cost to the registrant so Be the Match does not want to waste their funds if a person is not sure, Williams said.

But the payoff is worth it, she said. “It means everything to a patient and the patient’s family that a complete stranger will step up and save their loved one’s life.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal