In the News: Braithwaite's Cancer Battle Inspires Donors

Everyone knows how important it is to check the organ donor "box" on our driver's license. There's also a way to help others in life-threatening need while we're still living. Anyone interested in becoming a bone marrow/stem cell donor can join the National Marrow Donor Program through a simple test that requires only a swab of cheek cells.

After struggling with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since 2003, Dr. Tom Braithwaite, Augustana class of 1978, a hospitalist for Sanford Health, recently learned he is in need of a bone marrow transplant.

His longtime friend and former neighbor, Rob Oliver, president of Augustana, talks with KELO-TV about the importance of joining the National Marrow Donor registry as a way to help the thousands in need of bone marrow and/or stem cells.

Braithwaite's Cancer Battle Inspires Donors
By Brady Mallory

We often look to our doctors to cure what ails us, but there are times when the doctor is the one who is in need of some medicine. That is the case for a well-known KELOLAND doctor, whose battle with a deadly disease shows us that the best prescription does not always come in the form of a pill.

"So, we're going to do the swab part of the testing," a nurse said at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls.

There is no blood, no needles and no tears. Just a cotton swab.

"It's similar to brushing your teeth; that's the pressure you will use," the nurse said.

In a few short seconds, Augustana College President Rob Oliver and his DNA are ready to be on the National Marrow Donor registry.  Oliver spent 40 seconds swiping four cotton swabs on the inside of his cheek.  The swabs are wrapped up and sent into the organization.  If Oliver is a match, he will be notified.  If you are between age 18 and 60, you can be a donor, too.

"They really want donors between 18 and 44 and I'm just a little over 44," Oliver said with a big laugh. "We're going to encourage our students and encourage all young people because the younger donors are really the best."

This story is not about Augustana students or Oliver.

"When something like this happens to your good friend, you do what you can," Oliver said.

His good friend is Dr. Tom Braithwaite, an internal medicine physician who has also been a good friend to the many patients he has cared for over the years. Years ago, Braithwaite was Oliver's neighbor.  

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Learn more about the National Marrow Donor Program

"When our second daughter was born, we took our other daughter over and left her with the Braithwaites and we've been good friends for 25 years," Oliver said.

Only nine years ago, Braithwaite found himself on the other end of the stethoscope when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.  After repeated chemotherapy treatments, he was in remission. At the time he thought he had beaten the disease.  His cancer came back four years ago, and then again two years later. At this time, Braithwaite was used to his disease.

"Not that there wasn't shock and awe with that as well, but you get more of the impression that this is more of a companion that is going to be with you," Braithwaite said via phone.

He is in remission again today, but is currently at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, undergoing tests for a bone marrow transplant.  High dosages of chemo essentially destroyed his bone marrow, giving him a disease called Myodisplastic Syndrome. A donor has yet to be found. 

"We're pretty, pretty good at praying a lot," his sister Mindy Braithwaite said as she was touching a small pin on her lapel. "Every day, I put on my praying hands and I have his thumb print hanging around my neck.  Just during the day, if I happen to touch them, I say a little prayer for him.  I'm very optimistic he's going to be just fine."

A cure would be nice, but Braithwaite's faith has helped him cope.

"Regardless of how this moves or plays out going forward, I'm absolutely convinced I'm not alone during any step," Braithwaite said.

The chances of Oliver being a match for Braithwaite are pretty slim. That's why this story goes beyond just Braithwaite. Right now, there are about nine million people on the registry for the National Marrow Donor Program, but the number of people who find matching donors is much, much less. That is why Oliver and the Braithwaites want more people to know just how easy it is to get on the marrow registry. The more people on the registry, the more chances for life-saving donor matches. It is important to note that being an organ donor does not put you on the bone marrow registry.

"I've had that box checked on my driver's license ever since we had that opportunity to check the donor box and so you think about that.  Well if something happens to me, then my organs can be donated to someone else. Well, I can do this while I'm alive," Oliver said.

With his friends, family, colleagues and more, Braithwaite certainly is not alone in his fight. His sister made a candid observation about how strong their family has been throughout years of chemotherapy, doctors visits and tests, but her words run much deeper.

"We're all just connected somehow; even across the miles," Mindy said.

With everything he is going through, the good doctor is using his battle to help other patients. Afterall, life is not necessarily about helping the people you know. It is about stepping up for the people you do not know; the ones you will probably never meet. In this case, all it takes is just a cotton swab.

You don't always have to go to a doctor's office to get on the National Bone Marrow Registry. You can also get the swab test in the mail by visiting the National Marrow Donor Program's website.