While boredly scrolling through your Facebook timeline during class, you don’t expect to receive crushing news, news that makes you stop what you’re doing and leaves you there motionless. I got the devastating news that one of my friends died of Acute Myeloid Leukemia on June 4, 2013. It was not the greatest surprise; he was yo-yoing in his health the past two years, constantly coming in and out of the hospital. Even when you know that death is inevitable at that point, it is still shocking and heartbreaking to actually hear the news.
There was a period where his health improved after he received a bone marrow transplant. The most likely match comes from a close family member, but none of them were a match. Instead, he had to wait until a stranger was found to be a match for him. Eventually, a match was found, but the cancer had already taken a substantial toll on his body.
Bone marrow matches are usually found in people of the same ethnicity as the patient. This is because matches are found looking at human leukocyte antigen types which are genetically inherited. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, 76% of African Americans, 84% of AAPIs, 90% of American Indians, 83% of Hispanics, and 97% of Whites will be able to find a match in the United States. This means that many patients, primarily of minority descent, will not be able find a bone marrow donor. This data also does not include how quickly a match was found, a factor that contributes to the effectiveness of the treatment.
“Less than 35% of the people in the national bone marrow registry are ethnic minorities. Since donor matches are more likely to be found within the same ethnicity, this makes it very hard for patients of minority races to find a match,” said Kerilyn Sato, College Outreach and Recruitment Coordinator of Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M), a Southern California-based bone marrow registry. “It is important for us to give every patient an equal opportunity for a second chance at life.”
Over the past few years, I have had the amazing opportunity to work with the Asian American Donor Program (AADP), a Bay Area nonprofit organization who aims to promote bone marrow donation in minority communities. This is an off-branch of the Be the Match Foundation, focusing on Asian American donation in Northern California. Through this organization, I have worked firsthand with the donation process and met a few of the patients and their families. While their stories are different, the hope that each of the families possesses is the same.
I’m no longer in the area to work with the AADP but while I was on summer break from college, I heard that they were holding a bone marrow drive close to me. Without a second thought, I cleared my schedule to make sure I would be able to help out. This drive was targeted at the Vietnamese community to help Trish, a 12-year-old girl suffering from aplastic anemia, who dreams of becoming a doctor when she is older.
It’s an amazing experience to go into different communities and educate them about the process of bone marrow donation where misinformation is rampant. Many people do not know how technology has advanced the donation process and think of the old process that involves a surgery.
Today, the main method of bone marrow donation is by peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation. This is a non-surgical procedure where blood is passed through a machine that collects the blood-forming cells then deposits the blood back into your body. In rare cases, a surgical procedure will be done where bone marrow is taken from the pelvic bone surgically. Both processes have side effects that last usually less than two weeks.
A few days of discomfort is a worth trade-off for helping save the life of a mother, father, brother, sister, or friend. There are many ethnic minority people like Trish who are waiting to match with someone in the registry, some who may never find a match. AADP, A3M, and other organizations will continue the fight against blood diseases for as long as there is a patient who cannot find a match. In the meantime, remember, you have the ability to save a life.