Hero’s march

Pride of the North Band’s Seth Skjervheim runs the field mere days after donating bone marrow to anonymous recipient

Don, Seth and Kathy Skjervheim

UND Pride of the North Marching Band sousaphonist Seth Skjervheim stands with his dad, Don, and mom, Kathy, during a recent UND Fighting Hawks fooball game. Seth recently donated bone marrow to an anonymous man stricken with leukemia. He then returned to UND to perform with the band only days after the donation. Image courtesy of the Pride of the North Marching Band.

He must have done it dozens of times in practice and at football games, but this felt different.

Seth Skjervheim, sousaphone securely wrapped around his body, had just completed a mad dash around the entire UND Pride of the North Marching Band formation and positioned himself at the base of the giant “D” in “UND,” formed by fellow bandmates on the Alerus Center turf.

It was Saturday afternoon and the near sellout home crowd was at fever pitch before the UND Fighting Hawks-Montana State Bobcats football game. Skjervheim’s traditional running-of-the-brass only added to the frenzy.

The Pride band was about to belt out the first rousing bars of the UND Fight Song and Skjervheim let out a sigh of relief, because, of course, he was winded. But this time he felt a nagging twinge in his lower back, a feeling only a true hero could appreciate.

Just 10 days earlier, Skjervheim was on a hospital gurney, prepped for surgery at the University of Wisconsin Medical Center in Madison, even though he was the picture of good health.

That’s where the hero part comes in.

Easy decision

He was there because, over the summer, the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry had determined Skjervheim was a near perfect match to donate some of his precious marrow, flexible tissue in bones that serve as booming blood cell factories and key components of the body’s immune system. The recipient would be a 63-year-old leukemia-stricken man, whom Skjervheim has never met.

“I know his age and his disease but other than that I know nothing else about him,” Skjervheim says.

So how does a busy college student, dual majoring in communication and history, who plays big brass instruments on the side for UND’s Pride Band, end up dropping everything to help someone he doesn’t even know?

Skjervheim, 21, says he didn’t give it much thought. The modest Langdon, N.D. native demurs at the prospect that his actions were anything heroic.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said. “It’s someone’s life we’re talking about. It’s something where they knock you out and you don’t feel a thing… why not do it?”

Best match

Skjervheim didn’t set out to be a life-saving donor. The path started his freshman year at UND when his brother encouraged him to take part in a bone marrow registry drive on campus.

The process was a simple swipe of a swab inside his cheek, and that was it, Skjervheim recalls.

“Fast-forward to this past June and I started getting calls and emails that I was a potential match for a person, and asking if I would go through additional testing,” he said.

A follow up blood draw confirmed that Skjervheim was the best possible match to donate his bone marrow. A date was set to have the procedure done and Skjervheim was flown to Madison, where he donated his marrow the next day.

Back in the game

After the operation, doctors told Skjervheim to take it easy for a week or so. In the back of his mind, though, Skjervheim knew that a home football game was in just a few days, and he wanted to be on the field, sousaphone in hand, running around the formation. It’s a role usually reserved for senior sousaphone players in the Pride band, and Skjervheim is the only senior sousaphone player.

“It was kind of borderline, depending on how I was feeling,” he said. “I always knew that I would be able to march, but I’m the guy you see out there running around on the field … thankfully, I was well enough was able to it.

“It never really was bad. Just stiffness and soreness in the lower back, and it’s been getting better each day.”

He said the big run around the formation last Saturday wasn’t as tough as he thought, other than he felt a bit out of shape.  His mother, Kathy, had a different assessment.

“She was at the game and said I looked a little pale afterward,” Skjervheim said with a laugh.

Anonymous friend

Skjervheim’s willingness to give so much on short notice to a stranger and then get back into the game doesn’t surprise UND Assistant Director of Bands Rob Brooks, who heads up the Pride of the North Marching Band.

“He’s great, he’s our sousaphone section leader and one of the best members we have,” Brooks said. “He’s always there with a smile and enthusiastic about supporting the other members of the band. Seth is just wonderful all around.”

Over the next year, Skjervheim and the recipient of his bone marrow will be able to communicate with each other anonymously.

“And after that, if both of us are down for it,” he said, “then we could finally meet, but both of us would have to be on the same page about wanting to do that.”

Skjervheim says he is anxious to learn how his anonymous friend is faring after the donation.

“I definitely think about him a lot… I have not gotten any updates lately, but yes, I have been wondering how he is doing.”