The bag that Laurie Olesen gripped as she walked through the airport looked like any other carry-on. But the bright blue canvas tote would carry more than her cellphone, e-reader and toiletries. It would hold the last, best hope of survival for a desperately ill patient.
Bound for the East Coast, Olesen was on a mission to pick up blood stem cells or bone marrow provided by a donor, then fly with it to another city where it would be transfused into a recipient.
“The product travels so the patient or the donor doesn’t have to,” said Olesen, 66, of St. Paul.
Olesen is a volunteer courier for Be The Match. Based in Minneapolis, the nonprofit registry serves people diagnosed with a variety of life-threatening blood, bone marrow or immune system disorders.
She’s one of a cadre of 400 of specially trained volunteers that form a crucial, reliable and affordable link between donors and patients.
These couriers are prepared to get a call, race to the airport and reach across time zones with a perishable product that comes with a true deadline. The consequences of a delay can be devastating — even lethal — for a patient waiting for the unique match.
“Our volunteer couriers have to work on a tight time frame. They manage the paperwork and fill out a chain of custody form to document exactly where the cooler has been. We want it in a volunteer’s line of sight at all times,” said Rut Kessel, volunteer specialist with Be The Match. “They protect it with their life because it is a life.”
Only about 30% of patients who need a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant can find a donor within their family. Be The Match provides an international database of more than 20 million to locate an unrelated donor. When such a wide net is cast, the recipient and the anonymous donor rarely live in the same city. They’re usually in different states, regions or even countries.
That’s where couriers come in.
Many volunteers are retirees who have time and flexibility. The gig also attracts firefighters, health care workers and airline employees whose shift work creates consistent open days in their schedules. While costs for their flights, hotels and other travel expenses are covered, couriers aren’t paid for their time.
They also never meet — or even learn the names of — donors or recipients. They typically pick up a numbered product at one lab and deliver it to another.
“We have strict rules about confidentiality,” explained Kessel. “The courier experience is detached from the people involved. Something has gone terribly wrong if a courier ever meets or even sees a donor or recipient.”
But many couriers have a personal connection to Be The Match.
“Someone did this for me,” said Lisa Maxson, 37, an Ohioan who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2011. Hospitalized for months while she had chemotherapy and radiation to kill her own diseased bone marrow, the mother of three underwent a transplant to replace it with healthy donor cells.
“While I was sick, I decided I would give back to the organization that saved my life,” she said.
Her family now sponsors a 5K race to benefit Be The Match. And this winter, she traveled to the registry’s headquarters in the North Loop to take the two-day training for volunteer couriers.
“I’m so excited to be a courier for my transplant brothers and sisters,” she said. “I know what it feels like to be afraid you’re going to die.”
The gift of life
Every day of the year, volunteer couriers are in the air, crisscrossing the globe with the lifesaving cargo in temperature-controlled, medical coolers tucked under their seats. Last year, couriers living in 15 America cities made more than 2,600 trips, about a quarter of them to international destinations.
Five Minneapolis-based travel agents book their flights and manage their itineraries. Like the couriers themselves, the travel agents have to be nimble and act quickly when the unexpected occurs. They’re also on call round-the-clock to rebook trips if mechanical difficulties cancel a flight or blizzards or hurricanes snag the travel grid, said Bonnie Bagley, who supervises the agents.
Two years ago, Bagley became a volunteer courier and now uses vacation time to make deliveries.
“That closed the loop for me. Now I literally see how the system that I’ve had a glimpse of works for patients,” she said. “I understand the passion our volunteers have. There’s an adrenaline rush when you’re carrying the product.”
For her part, Olesen likely holds the record for the most trips, which she estimates at a hundred deliveries to every region in the United States as well as a number of foreign countries.
“Couriers have to be assertive, but must also remain calm,” she said. “You can’t get rattled when things don’t go as planned.”
She’s also learned how best to deal with foreign customs agents.
“When you bring a product from another country into the U.S., you have to declare the product to customs. You carry a special letter but, to tell the truth, some agents don’t know what they’re supposed to do. That’s where the diplomacy comes in,” said Olesen. “You have to help them do their job without alienating or provoking them. You learn to kill them with kindness.”
In 1986, Olesen was the first employee for the organization that became Be The Match. A registered nurse, she was working with blood collection at the American Red Cross in St. Paul when it was among a consortium of blood banks that received a grant to develop the nation’s first bone marrow registry. She was hired to identify donors for specific patients.
She joined the few lab technicians and transplant center employees who flew donations from donor to recipient. As the registry expanded and number of patients and donors increased, Be The Match added volunteer couriers in 2004. Olesen set up volunteer and education programs, managed search operations and kept up her courier duties.
While most of her deliveries have gone off without a hitch, she’s had a few near-misses, including the time when a drop-off spot in Barcelona turned out to be a dead end. She and a cabdriver bridged their language gap to figure out the correct spot and hustle across the city.
“We have guidelines for tipping, but that was one time I gave a little extra out of my own pocket,” Olesen recalled. “He went above and beyond.”
And then there was the time when she had completed her pickup in London, only to arrive at the airport as a snowstorm shut it down.
“I went to the gate agent and told them I was carrying bone marrow. They declared the flight a life flight and our plane was prioritized. We took off when the first runway opened,” she said. “When you do this, the courier gods are always on your side.”
Although Olesen retired from Be The Match two years ago, she keeps her bag packed and her passport ready so she can continue to fly as a volunteer.
“Being a courier reminds me of what we’re about. It affirms why we do what we do every day,” she said. “I know that within 24 hours after I get the product to its destination, it will be transfused into the recipient. That can give a person their life back.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis based freelance broadcaster and writer.