September 1, 2008
Desperate Search for Gift of Life
By JM Brown
Even though chemotherapy often leaves her weak, Michelle Maykin is armed with a powerful weapon whenever she sets out to convince potential donors to join a national bone marrow registry -- her beaming face.
"It makes a difference when you can say, 'Here's Michelle. She's sick and needs a donor,'" the 26-year-old said during a recent drive at UC Berkeley's California Memorial Stadium. "If they don't see the bald head, they don't realize I'm the patient."
Since her leukemia came back in May after a year in remission, the volunteer with the Alameda-based Asian American Donor Program has signed up 16,000 potential donors of many races for a national database. Maykin, relatives and friends have hosted about 300 donor drives, mostly in the Bay Area, as part of an effort they call "Project Michelle."
Patients needing bone marrow transplants can only be matched with donors of the same or similar ethnic makeup, creating a dire need for Asians, blacks and other minorities to donate. Donors and patients need to match in up to 10 categories, which makes matches for such multiracial patients as Maykin even more difficult.
Registering is a cinch -- filling out a medical survey and taking four cheek swabs -- and actually donating stem cells is easier than some might think, said AADP executive director Carol Gillespie. Donors are only asked to extract stem cells if there is a match, and health insurance or the national donor program will cover the procedure.
"Donors have four days of discomfort and no serious pain," Gillespie said. "These patients go through years and years of daily health struggles -- chemotherapy, blood transfusions, tumors, fevers -- they really are on the verge of dying."
Maykin, who underwent five rounds of chemotherapy after first being diagnosed in February 2007, said, "Finding out you have leukemia is devastating. Finding out you relapsed is 10 times worse."
Maykin needs a bone marrow transplant to replace stem cells and flush out the cancer chemotherapy didn't kill. While she helps AADP expand its national databank, she hopes one of the donors she recruits could be the one to save her life.
For three months, Maykin, who is half Chinese and half Vietnamese, has been searching worldwide for a bone marrow donor who matches her DNA profile. She has to find someone who has the same multiracial components. Family members don't provide exact matches, and although Vietnam and China are close together, she has had no luck identifying an international donor.
Gillespie said the difficult part of recruiting donors is not necessarily getting them to sign up, but finding them and convincing them to donate stem cells, once a match is found. Registered donors often don't report address and phone number changes, and once located face tough choices about whether to go ahead with donating.
"If you come up as a possible match, you're probably their only donor," Gillespie said, noting that there have only been 518 bone marrow or stem cell transplants in the Asian community nationwide. "What happens to those other 30,000 people? They die."
Maykin said, "If you're going to register you really have to be committed. That's something we struggle with every day."
During Fan Appreciation Day at Cal Stadium on Aug. 23, Project Michelle and the AADP registered 191 potential donors, said Maykin, a 2004 Cal graduate and Golden Bears season ticket holder. Fifty donors were football players and their coach.
"We're happy to be a part of this," said head coach Jeff Tedford, who met Maykin, her husband and their 1-year-old Yorkie, Marshawn, on the field after practice. (Marshawn is named after former Cal player Marshawn Lynch.)
"Any life we can help save is very worthwhile," said Tedford. "If we're in a position to help others, we should take that opportunity."
Maykin wore a navy Cal hat as she helped Tedford and others fill out medical surveys and take cheek swabs.
"Meeting him was so awesome," she said, adding that it "re- energized the team" of Project Michelle volunteers.
Maykin's 28-year-old husband, Van Le, who graduated from Cal in 2002, agreed.
"This is really touching for us," he said. "Giving us this shows how they feel about Michelle. We feel like family."
AADP started in 1989 when a friend of Gillespie's and board chairman John Leong was diagnosed with leukemia and there were only 123 Asians on the national registry. AADP has since registered more than 100,000 ethnic minorities for the national donor list, which now has 505,000 Asians.
Stem cells can be used to treat 167 kinds of blood diseases, from leukemia to lymphoma. "If you have a blood cancer, your immune system is what needs to be replaced," she said.
There are two kinds of procedures for donating stem cells. The most common, which happens 70 percent of the time, requires donors to have their blood drawn four or five days in a row after having an injection of a drug that stimulates stem cell production.
The second type is more daunting but not as painful as it may sound, Gillespie said. Donors go into the hospital to have marrow taken from their hipbone and back via five needles, but often get to go home that night, albeit sore and achy.
"It's a small price to pay to save someone's life," Maykin said.
HOW TO HELP
To find out about the next donor drive, contact AADP at (800) 59- DONOR, or visit the center at 2169 Harbor Bay Parkway, Alameda. To learn more about the program, visit www.aadp.org, or www.projectmichelle.com.How to help
To find out about the next donor drive, contact the AADP at (800) 59-DONOR, or visit the center at 2169 Harbor Bay Parkway, Alameda. To learn more about the program, visit www.aadp.org, or www.projectmichelle.com.
Originally published by J.M. Brown, Correspondent.
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