A Tacoma-based soldier is encouraging others to join the bone marrow registry after his donation saved a young girl.
Spc. Gavin Dingus enlisted at age 22, and months later, after years of being on the Be The Match registry, he received news that he could be a match for someone in need. He didn’t think twice about moving forward with a blood stem cell donation.
When the pandemic prematurely ended Dingus’ employment at Job Corps, he says he knew exactly what he wanted to do next.
“I knew that I wanted more from my life and to pursue a lifetime career. The choice of joining the Army was a no-brainer and something I have wanted to do since I was a child,” he said.
Two years after joining the military, he received a phone call that would allow him to do something else he had thought about since being a kid.
“When I was young, my grandmother was diagnosed with MS [multiple sclerosis]. I used to always say that I would grow up and find the cure and look everywhere for progress in developing one,” Dingus said. “One day I came across an article or news segment that talked about bone marrow donations being a possible cure. Since then I knew that when I turned 18 I would sign up to become a donor.”
On the phone was Be The Match, a global leader in bone marrow and blood stem cell donations. Its counterpart, Salute to Life, is a Congressionally-authorized bone marrow donor center for U.S. military and Department of Defense affiliated individuals. The call was about a 1-year-old named Avery who had been diagnosed with pre-B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Dingus was a match to save her life.
“To be honest, it took quite some time to sink in. Going through the process felt very normal to me, like it was something anyone would do. It wasn’t until I heard it clearly stated to me that Avery was cancer free that I had that ‘wow’ moment,” he said. “I would have to say it is the most unique and profound feeling I’ve had in my life, I definitely felt like I found purpose in my life and my actions.”
Dingus also described the donation process as “pain free.”
“It was incredibly smooth. The amazing people at BTM and Salute to Life had my back the entire way through. Just like anyone else, I had a few worries about the process, such as travel to and from the hospital, the procedure itself and recovery,” he said. “I quickly learned that there was nothing to worry about as they carefully explained each step of the process and ensured that I would be comfortable through its entirety.
I learned surgery is actually mostly only done if the recipient is very young, like Avery; usually it is done through a sort of IV system. The surgery was surprisingly quick and I was out of the hospital the same day. The recovery period was also only about two-to-three weeks.”
In November of 2022, Dingus met Avery and her family. He says there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
“Seeing her was like a weight lifted off my chest knowing that she was safe and on the path to recovery,” he said. “After the event we all went out to dinner and got to know each other, and it felt like I had known them all for my whole life. I truly gained a new family.”
As he continues his career in the Army, Dingus says he remains committed to sharing the importance of being a donor.
“I believe it is very important for people to understand how much it means to be a donor, and how much we are needed. Only approximately 40% of people called to donate actually follow through with their initial promise,” Dingus said. “When you add in the fact that you need to be a genetic match, minority groups are heavily impacted by the lack of donors. This is a chance to make an incredible impact on not just one person’s life, but all of their loved ones too. I have met such incredible people throughout this journey which otherwise I never would have met before.”