Volunteers seek bone marrow donors - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Volunteers seek bone marrow donors

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Posted: Saturday, March 28, 2009 7:49 pm | Updated: 1:59 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Candy in hand, following a monkey wearing a dress, 10-year-old Sa'Preeme Williams traveled all the way from Avondale with his family Saturday to help get people in Mesa's Fiesta Mall to register for the National Marrow Donor Program.

He needed the help, too.

Diagnosed with sickle-cell disease, a lifelong blood disorder found commonly in people of African descent like Sa'Preeme, the spry and expressive boy enjoyed the same candy he helped pass out with Molly B. Match, the program's mascot that made her debut at the mall.

"I wanted to volunteer because I have sickle cell and I feel better," he said, removing his candy from his mouth long enough to talk and smile. "I'm helping Molly pass out lollipops."

Volunteer Paula Keefer of Scottsdale, who helped out because she has a friend in California who needs a bone marrow transplant, said by early afternoon it had turned slow going.

"We go in surges," she said of the mallgoers signing up.

Several stations were set up where the curious learned basic information, filled out a brief donor application and gave a DNA sample to be added to the registry. Medical innovations have made giving lifesaving bone marrow donations as easy as donating blood, a program official said.

"A lot of people think it's a needle in the spine, but that's not the only way to donate," said Oscar Correa of the National Marrow Donor Program. "If you can donate blood, you can do this."

Correa said the mall was targeted because the registry is in desperate need of diversity, particularly among prospective donors of black, Hispanic and Native American ancestries.

"Race really matters - people of the same race have a better chance of matching," he said, explaining that while different races can match for bone marrow, a person of the same race offers a recipient a better chance of recovery.

"It's really a numbers game that you are going to find a match for a donor," Correa said.

To put things in perspective, Correa said there are 5 million Caucasians on the registry, compared with 500,000 Hispanics and blacks and even fewer Native Americans at 70,000.

That might be the reason that each time a new donor swabbed the inside of his or her mouth, providing DNA and signifying that they were almost done in the registration process, the volunteers cheered and rang golden cowbells and Molly the monkey often danced.

Mesa police Sgt. Warren Solomon stood with the volunteers for most of the day after registering.

He became friends with many of the volunteers, linked by what he described as an abiding similarity.

"Leukemia brought us together," said the 22-year veteran, whose daughter was diagnosed with the devastating disease in 2005, for which there was no donor match. "We were looking - unfortunately, none of her four brothers were a match."

For stem-cell recipient and survivor Mandy Baumgarten, luck issued her a rebirth of sorts.

Eight months after receiving a donation from a 21-year-old man she does not know, she said she has the immune system of a baby.

"It's risky business," said the 31-year-old Gilbert resident who grew up in Mesa. "They destroyed my bone marrow in order to kill my leukemia, and now I am doing remarkably well."

With two hours before the end of the donor registry, more than 70 people had registered, or several dozen rings of the cowbell.

"More cowbell," Sa'Preeme said, smiling and laughing.

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