Guest Written by Jason E. Warnick, Ph.D.
Until about three years ago, I had been fortunate to never have anyone close to me suffer from leukemia. To say I was ignorant about blood cancers would be generous — I knew nothing. My introduction came while working on a book. Somehow, I managed to get a legendary scientist to agree to write the foreword to this manuscript. A few weeks went by and I received an email from the scholar requesting permission to drop out of the project. She explained that she had a reoccurrence of leukemia. Speaking with one of her colleagues, I learned that she battled this disease for years, but this time it looked like it would be the final fight. She needed a bone marrow donation soon or she would not survive. Unfortunately, that bone marrow donation never happened. She passed away less than six months after dropping out of the book project. The world lost an accomplished scientist, a devoted mother and wife, and a friend to many.
After she passed away, I learned that she had looked for a bone marrow donation for 11 years. Eleven years of hopes, prayers, waiting for the phone to ring, doctors reporting on her deteriorating health, saddened friends and worried family members. It did not seem fair that this could happen to her or anyone else. I wanted answers and I began studying.
Why wasn’t she able to get a donation? Bone marrow matching isn’t as simple as matching blood types. There are only eight blood types but the bone marrow tissue types are complex and unique from person to person. Even within families, finding a donor can be difficult. Only 30 percent of patients are able to find a bone marrow match among their relatives. The majority of patients have to look at the National Bone Marrow Registry to find their match. The more people registered on this database the greater the chance of a patient finding a match. Increasing the number of people registered is one of the best ways to battle leukemia.
I reached out to the Be the Match Foundation to learn more about hosting a bone marrow registry event and learned that it’s easy to register. All you need to do is fill out a form and swab the inside of your cheek to collect skin cells for a DNA analysis. It takes about five minutes and the person is on the National Bone Marrow Registry until they are 62 years old. Approximately one out of every 500 people registered gets a request to donate. I established a chapter of Be the Match On Campus at Arkansas Tech University in 2013 with the goal to get 500 people registered and save someone’s life.
Almost 300 people registered in the first year. While I was proud of our progress, I wanted to get more people registered. A colleague, Dr. Julie Mikles-Schluterman, had a great idea: let’s try to break the world record for bone marrow registrants in a 24-hour time period. We needed 3,000 people to accomplish this. When I approached Be the Match with this idea for there was skepticism. But I told them what would become a mantra for this event: “The River Valley is one of the most caring places in this country. When the region realizes their help is needed, they will be here to sign up.” And the River Valley proved us right. In spite of horrible weather on the day of the event, we were able to register nearly 1,800 people. Community members stood in the rain for the chance to sign up. They helped us move our registry tent to a new location. They advertised on social media. They did all that they could to insure the event was successful. We didn’t break the world record but the River Valley showed its’ character on that day.
We are hearing the first reports of our registrants getting called to donate bone marrow. It is a proud moment to see members of our community giving the gift of hope and life. If you have not registered, I would encourage you to make the commitment and join the National Bone Marrow Registry. You don’t have to wait until a bone marrow registry drive comes to your area. Simply go to https://join.bethematch.org/ and sign up. If you are unable to join due to age or health, please consider donating money to this cause. Let us continue to show what makes the River Valley such a special place by fighting leukemia and other blood cancers.
Guest Written by Jason E. Warnick, Ph.D.