Penn State Hockey

'To save a life': Penn State hockey player David Glen donates stem cells to help leukemia patient

The reputation for hockey players is toughness and grittiness. They wind up for slap shots and throw their bodies around to slam an opponent into the boards, and their smiles typically lack a tooth or two.

The image is usually not about sitting in a room donating blood stem cells, surrendering game time, to help save the life of someone he may never meet.

That is exactly what David Glen has done.

“Missing games in the middle of the season, that’s just how dedicated and generous he is,” teammate Curtis Loik said. “He’s self-giving — every word in the book. A role model for all of us.”

The sophomore forward from the Nittany Lion men’s hockey team just completed a procedure to harvest hematopoetic stem cells, because somewhere in the world there is a woman in her 50s who is battling leukemia and needs Glen’s help.

He was more than happy to oblige, missing last Saturday’s game against Boston College and this weekend’s games at Ohio State to deal with the procedure and its side effects.

“A few games is well-worth the sacrifice to give this lady a second chance to live her life and beat her struggle with cancer,” Glen said Wednesday afternoon, speaking publicly for the first time about the experience. “It’s a sacrifice, but in the long run it’s nothing. I’m just excited to have the opportunity to do it.”

That he was willing to give so much of himself right in the middle of the season speaks so much about the native of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, in the prairies of central Canada.

“He really is the ultimate team guy,” Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky said. “He’s not comfortable at all with individual attention. He’s pumped when the whole team does something great. He’s sort of like the perfect guy to do this. He’s uncomfortable talking about himself, but he’s such a giving guy. It is perfect.”

The journey began in the fall of 2012, when a drive was started to find a bone marrow donor for the mother of Penn State lacrosse player Drew Roper. A number of students signed up to be potential donors, having a blood sample taken to be put in a national registry.

Glen was not a match to Kim Roper — and she is still seeking a donation — but last spring he found out he was a preliminary match for someone else. A number of tests followed to find out how close of a match he really was.

As Dr. Edward Gorak II, co-director of the Bone Marrow Transplant Program and director of Hematology Malignancy at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, explained, finding a match depends on anthropology — looking at the family roots.

“We try to get your blueprint to match up with the other person’s blueprint as best as possible,” Dr. Gorak said. “If the two blueprints don’t match, it doesn’t mean you don’t do the transplant, it just means there’s more potential for complications after.”

As the ball began to roll, Glen researched what he had to do and how it would affect him, also talking it over with his family, who were still thousands of miles away in Canada.

When he found out late last year he was a definite match, it was time to break the news to Gadowsky — although he was unsure how much time he would have to miss.

“We were both kind of in the dark, so I was a little apprehensive at first,” Glen said. “After talking to him it was completely different. He was excited and on board right from the beginning. He’s been nothing but supportive and I guess pumped for me.”

While teammate and roommate Kenny Brooks had been following the process from the early stages, most of the Nittany Lions knew little until word began to trickle through the locker room. He told them the full story last week.

“He’s giving up something so little, the three games that he’s not going to be able to play, something so little, to save a life,” junior and team captain Tommy Olczyk said. “It’s very cool and it’s something everyone on our team — we all look up to him for doing what he did. It’s awesome.”

Glen began getting a series of injections last Friday to boost the production of the stem cells in his bones, and they began to be pushed out into his bloodstream. On Tuesday, he was at Geisinger in Danville, settling in for about six hours as his blood was essentially circulated out and back into his body, undergoing a peripheral blood stem cell harvest in which only the now more-prevalent stem cells are extracted.

Dr. Gorak said anywhere from 20-24 liters of blood are circulated through the machine during the procedure, and later the bag of stem cells is frozen and shipped off to the recipient — they might be used the next day or saved for a later procedure, depending on what point the patient might be at for chemotherapy or radiation.

Glen, meanwhile, has some aching bones and is rather wiped out from the experience. He was hoping he would have enough energy to strap on the skates and get back onto the ice by Thursday. Aside from those ailments, and a one percent chance of a reaction to the injections in his spleen, there essentially are no other issues for Glen.

“What we tell the donor is the risk is very minimal,” Dr. Gorak said. “The potential benefit for the recipient greatly outweighs the risk for the donor.”

The website for Be The Match, which is a national registry for bone marrow and stem cell donation, said 1 in 540 submissions go on to make a donation, and it can take time to find a match.

“It can take upwards of three to six months,” Dr. Gorak said. “That can be crucial for someone that has a leukemia, for example. If it takes three to six months, that’s precious time that the leukemia can come back and relapse.”

Glen’s sacrifice has been noted not only on the team, but also around campus and beyond. He has heard from Roper’s father, and received scores of email and Twitter messages.

During the second intermission of Saturday’s game, Penn State honored several children and their families who have been aided by Penn State’s IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. Glen also stepped onto the ice, and the crowd in the sold-out arena roared in appreciation for his work.

He even got a message from someone in the arena whose life was saved from the same procedure.

“The support I’ve gotten through social media and emails and stuff is really more than I could ever imagine,” he said. “Especially with the game on Saturday, going out on the ice, that was really just a special moment for me. I really didn’t think anything like this would be happening.”

One fan in the student section hung a sign on the glass next to the ice: “David Glen the ultimate assist.”

Glen’s 16 goals led the team last season, although he has struggled to just two goals and three assists this season for the Nittany Lions (4-15-1). He has been trying to break out of his scoring slump, but there was little thought about missing games.

“The opportunity for him, what he can do to help a life, save a life, trumps everything,” Gadowsky said.

“Even if he had to sit out the rest of the season — I know we wouldn’t like that much because we need David — but we would always fully support that,” Brooks said. “He’s saving a life. That’s a lot bigger than the game.”

It may not be what you would expect from a hockey player, but it is what to expect from Glen.

“We’re very proud of him,” Gadowsky said, “and I’m very proud that our program is associated with him.”