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Roads Taken and Not Taken: Rob Korobkin '08

It’s a spring day in 2006, at the end of my sophomore year, and I’ve recently declared as a Cities major. I’m on my way back to my room in Lunt when a brightly colored sign outside of the rear entrance to Founders Hall catches my attention advertising, "Sign Up Today For The National Marrow Donor Program!"

I’m one of those “radical” Haverfordians who writes papers decrying the evils of the prison-industrial system and organizes student trips to antiwar protests.  I’m confident I know right from wrong, and joining the National Marrow Donor Program seems like an easy way to do some good and get a free cookie.  So I climb the stairs, fill out the paperwork and swab a few cells off the inside of my cheek with a Q-Tip.

In March of this year, I receive a phone call from the program. There’s a man in his fifties dying of Leukemia.  I’m one of only a handful of people in the system who might be sufficiently genetically compatible with him to donate the stem cells he needs to survive.

I don’t know the guy, and the program’s strict confidentiality policy keeps it that way.  Three years have passed since I signed up.  I’ve moved to Portland, Maine to study investigative journalism. Donating part of my body couldn’t be farther from my mind.  But the procedure seems safe, and I feel it’s pretty clear what the right thing is to do.  So, I go ahead with it.

On each of the four days preceding the donation, a nurse comes to my house to administer a drug that increases the number of stem cells in my bloodstream.  The shots sting worse than getting hit point blank with a paintball gun and the drug renders my muscles sore and my energy drained.  By the last day, I’m bedridden, unable to sleep but too weak to do much else.

As uncomfortable as it is to spend six hours the next day at Massachusetts General Hospital tied into a contraption that looks like a cross between a microwave oven and something from The Matrix, the donation goes relatively smoothly.   By the time it’s over, the machine has cycled through all of the blood in my body five times and has filled a plastic medical bag with about a third of a liter of stem cells the color of grapefruit juice.  A few hours later, doctors pump the bag’s contents into the dying man’s body, possibly extending his life a few months.

Within a couple days, I’m back to normal, riding my bike and playing drums in my rock band.  But even though my body has returned to normal, my mind is still processing the whole thing.  To be honest, I really don’t know if I’d do it again.  It’s easy to talk about moral responsibility when you’re an idealistic kid on a beautiful and sheltered campus, but I’m beginning to realize how complex and difficult it can be to actually live out those ideals.  Sometimes, however, you get an opportunity to help save a life without even asking for it.  Sometimes you take it.

Rob Korobkin can be contacted at rob.korobkin@gmail.com

The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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