Making a difference

How one medical student is passing more than just tests—he’s passing legislation!

Indiana legislation calls for grants for programs for free testing for bone marrow donation registries, public education of bone marrow donation and more.

Imagine you are an osteopathic medical student in your first year of school. You are waist-deep in anatomy and pharmacology, information pouring over you like water from a firehose. Exams loom around every corner and you just want to catch a break. However, you are sidetracked in your free time by something that once caught your mind, and it also involves patient care.

Fixing a gap

This describes Joseph Asper, OMS II, who attends Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Indiana. His family’s experience of battling cancer while living in countries with less-accessible health care led Asper to feel that his past could play a role in his future.

“My parents always inspired me to think of others,” he says. “I was young when I had relatives die from cancer, perhaps from poorly organized organ donation systems. If this was the case in the United States, I wanted to fix this gap for others.”

Joseph Asper, OMS II

He had largely been unaware of bone marrow and organ donation processes, but he eventually found his way to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and became a patient navigator. Here, he took it upon himself to research bone marrow donation campaigns, particularly as he watched patients spend many months and sometimes years on match waitlists.

A bill is created

Through social media, Asper found that the Washington state legislature had passed a bill that promoted education on bone marrow donation. He was reassured that the legislation seemed bipartisan and found that other states had something similar.

After his time in Texas, Asper moved to Indiana for medical school. He became the medical student as described above, engrossed in his studies yet still plagued by the thought that some folks in his community may have a knowledge gap about bone marrow donation. He sought guidance from his state lawmakers, and inquired about introducing a bill that would raise awareness of bone marrow donation. He suggested that the focus would be on education but also with a special focus on minority populations. Marrow and organ matches are typically among people of similar descent, but minority populations are at risk due to the inherent lack of donors. His hope would be that certain entities such as driver’s license bureaus would be asked to disseminate this information to ensure a broad outreach.

One of the first lawmakers he contacted was Indiana State Senator Greg Taylor, who was interested in the issue, and thus a bill was drafted. Several months later, the bill would begin the arduous process of readings, hearing testimonies and multiple edits. Student doctor Asper began looking for resources and support for the bill, including donor groups such as Be the Match and Project 44. Other state house representatives contacted him to discuss their support as well.

Connecting with the medical community

As some of Asper’s mentors learned of this incredible grassroots campaign, they recommended that he reach out to Indiana Osteopathic Association (IOA) Executive Director Tabitha Arnett. This intrigued Asper; he did not know that the state society would be involved in advocacy, but now he knew he needed help.  Of course, Arnett was proud to support his efforts, but was genuinely surprised at how close the bill was to becoming a law.

“I encourage osteopathic medical students to work with their state osteopathic association on all policy issues important to them,” Arnett says. “We understand the bigger picture and often have connections to help move things forward.”

Of course, there were many things to figure out before the bill could move forward, including finances, the logistics of printing and disseminating flyers and the construction of a website where folks could be led to the bone marrow donation registry. Fortunately, there was widespread support from within the medical community. The IOA, AOA and the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA) all sent letters of support.

A final draft was brought before the state legislature, calling for public education of bone marrow donation with a focus on minorities, and information on requirements and procedures for testing and donation. The bill also called for this information to be readily available in health care facilities, blood banks and driver’s license bureaus. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed this bill into law on March 7, 2022. You can read the entirety of the bill here.

‘Be innovative’

I was so inspired to speak to Asper about this advocacy adventure. It turns out that he is interested in pursuing psychiatry as a specialty and plans to incorporate lessons learned from his experience with prospective transplant patients into his practice. For instance, he would like to focus on anxiety disorders and stress disorders in patients awaiting bone marrow and organ transplant, particularly among ethnic minorities. There seems to be little research in this part of medicine, but I have no doubt Asper will take the lead.

When asked to reflect on his success in this grassroots campaign, Asper says, “Think of an idea. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t fear that it will be a waste of time. Be innovative and find a niche topic that is important to you because chances are it will also benefit others.”

Asper hopes that through the sharing of this story, his fellow medical students will also be influenced to become strong advocates for patients and the profession. 

“Even as a medical student, you have the ability to influence politics and the duty to advocate for what is needed in society,” he says. 

Asper has been an inspiration in the state advocacy movement. He along with Arnett and the entire IOA team have exemplified what it means to be strong advocates in the osteopathic family and will no doubt have saved lives through their efforts.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

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