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Bone marrow drive hopes to increase number of minority donors

Monday, February 21, 2011 | 4:15 p.m. CST; updated 7:49 p.m. CST, Monday, February 21, 2011

COLUMBIA — Saving someone’s life can be as simple as swabbing the inside of a cheek.

That’s all it takes to become a member of the Bone Marrow Registry during the Mizzou Black Men’s Initiative’s “Swab Up & Be The Match” event. The drive will be held from 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center.

“This is the second year that we’ve been doing it, and one of the biggest reasons why we did it is because we saw a need,” coordinator Marcus Mayes said. “You don’t hear about bone marrow drives specifically on campus, let alone a bone marrow drive targeted towards minorities." 

Mayes, a graduate student at MU, said his organization wants to educate students about the importance of minorities joining the registry.

“Matches are more likely to happen with those of similar race and ethnicity,” Mayes said. “African-Americans in need of a bone marrow transplant are more apt to find a match with other African-Americans. Currently, there are about 8 million donors in the registry, and only 7 percent are African-American.”

Unlike white patients who might have more than one match in the registry, minority patients have slimmer odds of finding a match because of the small percentage of minority donors, Mayes said. Because of those odds, the initiative is even more driven to get people to participate. Mayes said they have reached out to other minority organizations, including the Asian American Association, to spread the word and help educate students.

“Our biggest thing is education,” Mayes said. “We want to educate people about the need for bone marrow, and for people to join the registry and possibly be that person that could save a life.”

LaGail Chism, a representative for the Be The Match Foundation, outlined the foundation’s guidelines for joining the registry:

Bone marrow donation conjures up images of huge needles and pain, but the myths surrounding donation are scarier than the process itself. At the initiative's event Tuesday, participants will only be registered with a swab of cheek cells — no bone marrow will actually be donated, Mayes said. 

"The fear is a lot of myths," Chism said. "Your body replenishes itself every second of the day. The fear factor keeps a lot of people from doing it. If you are called upon to be a stem-cell donor, it’s like giving blood or plasma."

Carl E. Freter, a professor of medicine at MU and the director of the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, said donating is easy, and surgical donation has become the exception rather than the rule. He said:

  • The majority of bone marrow transplants that are done today do not involve surgical procedures removing bone marrow from the pelvic bone.
  • Donations involve stimulating the bone marrow of a donor with a growth factor to allow the stem cells in the bone marrow to circulate in the peripheral blood.
  • The stem cells are collected by a cytophoresis machine, which involves putting a couple of different intravenous lines in a donor and circulating the blood through the machine.
  • Freter said many donors build up the process to be more painful in their imagination than it is in reality. He said the procedure is "almost always very tolerable," and any pain or discomfort is easily managed.

"For some diseases, bone marrow transplants can cure up to 50 percent of people who would otherwise die," Freter said.

Chism, who is also the co-founder of the Bria T. Chism Foundation, said students shouldn't be afraid to donate.

"It’s really a painless situation compared to what a patient goes through," Chism said. "Just think, saving a life; that’s the most rewarding thing you can do, giving of yourself."

Bria T. Chism, Chism's granddaughter, died of chronic myeloid leukemia when she was 6 years old in 1999. She had received a bone marrow transplant but died from complications.

"What we found out was the registry was very low on minorities, especially African-Americans," Chism said. "So in her memory, to keep other families from going through what we went through, we figured we would find as many minorities as we could."

Freter said minorities are hugely underrepresented in the National Marrow Donor Registry, and he applauds groups like the Mizzou Black Men's Initiative that want to see this change. The initiative hopes to surpass last year's total of 81 new registry members. 

"The registration process only takes about 15 minutes," Mayes said. "It’s an opportunity to potentially help save a life down the road. There are many people that could be in need; you never know."


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