Be Someone's Hero

It's likely that Arizona Daily Star readers are already familiar with 16-year-old Carlos Valencia and his four-year-long battle against leukemia, thanks to a series of articles filed by staff writer Carla McClain. While media coverage of Carlos' struggle has been generous, this is one bandwagon I'm happy to jump on--just in time for the American Red Cross' bone marrow registration drive at the Arizona Daily Star, 4850 S. Park Ave., from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, July 31.

"This kiddo has had a really rough time," says the Red Cross' Sherry DeClerq. Carlos has endured high-dose chemotherapy, full-body radiation, numerous cord transplants and the painful side-effects that so many cancer victims and their families are all too familiar with. According to DeClerq, Carlos' body rejected the latest cord blood transplant; on Friday morning, July 23, Carlos slipped into a coma and later developed pneumonia and an unidentified infection that is affecting organ function.

What Carlos and others in his situation need are blood stem cells, of which there are three sources: bone marrow, peripheral blood and cord blood (blood collected from the umbilical cord after a baby is born). Cord blood is generally used when a match cannot be found; because the stem cells in cord blood aren't fully formed, they have the ability to become what's needed--red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets. But since Carlos' body has now rejected a total of three cord blood transplants, his doctors are seeking a marrow match. While peripheral blood begins the grafting process sooner (i.e. travels to the marrow and begins to function and multiply), marrow has a lower risk of graft vs. host problems.

The bone marrow registration drive--planned prior to Carlos' loss of consciousness--will continue as scheduled. It is the hope of many that this drive, unlike the one held in 2001 (for which 4,000 donors turned out), will finally yield a match for Carlos.

"Ninety percent of the time," says DeClerq, "you're going to find a match within your own ethnic group." That's why Carlos' friends and family are hoping that the Hispanic community, in particular, will respond to this latest plea for donors.

While Caucasians in general have an 80 percent chance of finding a donor match, one has still not been found for Susan Taylor--a Caucasian Tucson girl--and the statistics for minorities are even grimmer. A July 2003 estimate of the ethnic groups represented in the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) reads as follows: Caucasian: 2,563,596; Hispanic: 415,383; Black: 388,847; Asian/Pacific Islander: 316,776; American Indian: 60,996; multiple race: 106,784; unknown: 1,029,777.

At least part of the solution is simple: More of us need to join the donor registry.

"It's just one tube of blood," says DeClerq, "and then you fill out a consent form. It's HLA testing--similar to DNA testing; we don't even care what blood type you are."

Unlike donating whole blood, it also doesn't matter whether you have tattoos, body piercings or have lived in Europe, as long as you're between the ages of 18 and 60 and in good health. Conditions that would disqualify you from registering are heart conditions, cancer (except skin cancer), insulin-dependent diabetes and severe, chronic asthma.

When you donate a blood sample to the registry, it gets tissue-typed and assigned an index number to protect confidentiality. The information is entered into the database; if a match is later found, donors are contacted and asked whether they're willing to donate. A patient's treating physician is likely to make a specific request for either marrow or peripheral blood, after which NMDP educates the donor about the collection process involved. Donors incur no costs.

If it sounds scary or like you might rather go to the movies, consider this: You can save someone's life. It's an incredible but awesome truth (awesome in the "overwhelmingly huge" sense), and could be the most important, meaningful thing you do in your entire life. Someone that somebody loves is dying, right now, and you can save them.

It you want tears rolling down your face in record time, visit the NMDP's Web site at www.marrow.org and click on "real life stories." Read about a construction worker who saved a 21-year-old mother, a veteran street cop who saved a baby named Luke, a mother who saved someone else's 12-year-old daughter, and a college senior who saved an 8-year-old boy.

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

For more information, call (800) MARROW-2.

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