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Minorities Need Bone Marrow Donors

Black person's face, bone
AP / CBS
Thousand of patients around the country are seeking a bone marrow donor, but those who are ethnic minorities may be the least likely to find a matching contributor, reported The Saturday Early Show contributor Debbye Turner.

Rory Johnson is a graduate student at the University of Chicago's Divinity School. Most would never guess by looking at him that last year he got frightening health news.

Johnson said he got "a message from my doctor telling me to go immediately to the emergency room or I might die. Turned out I ended up with a sort of rare blood disease," said Johnson.

The doctor told Johnson he was extremely anemic because he had low hemoglobin, which means he didn't have adequate red blood cells in his blood.

Then Johnson found out what he needed to survive:a bone marrow transplant.

Naturally, Rory turned to his family first, but their bone marrow didn't match his own. Now, he faces the uphill battle of finding an unrelated donor.

"I'm a hard person to match," said Johnson. "African-Americans tend to be difficult to find matches for."

Finding a bone marrow donor is more difficult for Asians, Pacific Islanders and Hispanics than Caucasians. And it is most difficult of all to find a donor match for African-Americans.

Although progress has been made in the past decade, four out of every 10 African-Americans searching for a bone marrow donor will be unable to find a match.

The reason is African races are older and have more complex tissue types. That means ethnic heritage is the best way to increase the likelihood of a potential match.

"For the most part, African-Americans match African-Americans best, Caucasians match Caucasians best," said Dr. Jeffrey Chell, the CEO of the National Marrow Donor Program.

According to Dr. Chell, the first step to saving those who need bone marrow transplants is for them to become part of his National Marrow's international registry.

"We ask you to fill out some information about your health, and some contact information so we know how to reach you if you ever come up as a match and then we take 5 drops of blood from a finger tip," he explained.

Bone marrow drives are a convenient place to get screened. All that is required is good health and a willingness to help others.

"A few years ago my mom ran a drive for someone that we knew in India, so I think it's a good idea to do this," said Nick Pyati, a potential marrow donor.

The drive's poster child is Ray Ray. He is fine for now because his rare immune disease is being treated with medication .

"My husband and I we're going to do whatever we can, not just for Ray Ray, but for other people who are on the registry that need help," said Zina Berryhill, Ray Ray's caregiver.

Bob Tolden is one of those patients. He had leukemia and needed a miracle.

That miracle came from Gloria Shelton. After being screened, she was told her bone marrow was a match.

"If I hadn't done it, Bob wouldn't be here," said Shelton.

A year later, they met.

"The 29th of this month is four years," said Shelton. "And to be able to give life to someone, how could someone say no? That's the greatest gift or accomplishment anyone could ever achieve."

Rory Johnson is still looking for a bone marrow match and Ray Ray is doing well, for now. The best way to help these two and many others, say doctors, is to donate a small drop of blood to be screened for marrow matches.

You can join the National Marrow Donor registry if you are:

  • Between the ages of 18 and 60
  • In good general health
  • Willing to be available if you are ever identified as a match for a patient in need

    For more information about becoming a donor on the National Marrow Donor Program Registry, go to www.marrow.org or call 1-800-MARROW-2.