I'll be reporting tonight on an important but often-neglected medical issue: bone marrow donations. It turns out that only about 30% of people who need bone marrow transplants actually find a match in their own families, so registries of donors are becoming critically important. My piece explains how much easier it has become to actually be a bone marrow donor — it's less scary and less painful than you may think! We also show how these kinds of registries are saving lives.
One of those lives belongs to a young woman named Keisha Worthington. Her mother, Angela, wrote this blog post for us about her daughter's odyssey.
In October of 2004 my 18-year-old daughter Keisha was away attending her first year of college. She called home complaining of feeling tired and not being able to get energy to walk to class. The campus physicians saw her and blood work was taken. To our surprise and utter dismay, Keisha was diagnosed with ALL— Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
We had heard of leukemia and knew that it was a malignant cancer — but how did my healthy 18-year-old African-American daughter get the disease? We did not know, and the doctors could not tell us why. We knew about leukemia; however, to our surprise, it was no longer a young white male disease. Over the years, Leukemia has affected young, old, male, female, black and white.
Keisha was devastated. She was so excited about being away and on her own, and now she was in a fight for her life. The first step in most cases is to test blood siblings to see if there is a possible match for a bone marrow transplant. Keisha has one full brother; he was tested but not found to be a match. There is a 30% chance that a full sibling will be a close enough match to qualify as a donor. This was not our case. We were determined to continue to search and find a donor for Keisha.
The first round search in 2005, presented us with four possible donors. However, upon further testing, they were not close enough to Keisha to believe that the transplant would be successful. Therefore, Keisha was prescribed an oral chemotherapy drug. We believed that the drug would work or that a donor would be found. We remained optimistic and positive throughout the next two years. We believed that God would allow the medicine to work or send us the miracle donor.
The National Marrow Donor Program has more than 6 million people on their registry. More than 3 million donors are Caucasian; only about 480,000 are African-American. This was indeed a surprise to us; it made the possibility for a donor match truly a miracle. But we never lost hope. Keisha continued to live a normal life. She attended a local college (making the honor roll for four consecutive semesters), worked part-time and in 2007 became engaged.
In February 2007, Keisha's doctors informed us that a possible donor had been located. Further testing had to be completed, but they were very hopeful that this would be the match that Keisha would need to proceed with the bone marrow transplant. Further testing proved to be successful and the donor was contacted and agreed to the transplant.
We were thrilled, to say the least. We knew nothing of the donor, only that they were a match. Keisha received her transplant on May 23, 2007. We are close to the 60-day mark, and Keisha is doing fantastic. Words would never express our gratitude and appreciation to the donor. We are so grateful that they were willing to register for the bone marrow program and take the next step and actually answer the call to donate. We are unable to contact the donor until a year has expired. However, if we could, we would want him or her to know that the gift they have given to a stranger is one that we could never repay. God has used the donor as an instrument in Keisha's miracle, and we want to thank them. They will always hold a very special place in our hearts and we will pursue contact as soon as the registry allows.
Encouraging the African-American community to become donors has become a passion for Keisha and I. The possibilities of lives being saved would increase drastically with the availability of more donors in our community. We participated in the Leukemia Lymphoma Society's Light the Night Walk in 2006 and raised not only the awareness in our community but also $3,000.
We are currently reaching out to the Greek Gray Leukemia Foundation (founded by a young African-American women who later succumbed to leukemia) to organize a donor drive at our local church to increase registry and increase awareness. We believe that if more African Americans knew that they could save a life with this very simple process, not only would the number of registered donors increase but the number of cancer survivors in our community would also increase. This is our goal, and we are pleased that Katie Couric and her team have taken the time to tell our story and bring this need to the forefront of the African-American community.
The incidents of leukemia in the minority community are on the rise. This gives all of us the opportunity to make a difference and save a life by becoming a living donor. We are confident that Keisha's experience will be the catalyst in our fight to increase the minority donor register 10,000 fold. This is our goal, and we are determined with God's help to make a difference the same way Keisha's donor has made a difference.
The gift can never be repaid — only appreciated and passed on through awareness. To the donor who has given my daughter her life back, we will always be indebted to you and grateful beyond words. God bless.