Gabby Carter was only months old when she was rushed to the hospital, her spleen full of damaged red blood cells. That day, Gabby became diagnosed with sickle-cell disease. Now, at age 5, she is continuing her ongoing battle with the disease. Her only hope for a full recovery is a bone marrow transplant—but the chance of finding a bone marrow donor who is a perfect match is devastatingly slim. Generally, there is only about a 30% chance of finding a donor who is a perfect match, and the odds are much less for minorities, who are extremely underrepresented in the pool of bone marrow donors. The rare opportunity for Gabby to receive a bone marrow transplant from a perfect match did arise once… until the donor decided to back out. However, despite these odds, Gabby and her mother refuse to give up hope.
For the 30,000 people suffering from fatal blood diseases such as sickle cell, leukemia, and lymphoma, only about 2% of Americans are on the national bone marrow donor registry. This shockingly low number can easily be boosted if the number of donors were to increase. Donating marrow is unlike donating a vital organ, such as a kidney, as bone marrow has the ability to regenerate itself. Gabby’s mother, Debbie Carter, urges people to register as bone marrow donors and potentially help save another person’s life. “For you, it’s only a couple of days,” she says. “For her, she becomes normal. She’s cured. She gets to grow up—do things that people take for granted.”
Finding a match for a bone marrow transplant and is much more difficult than finding a match for blood, in that a bone marrow donor must be compatible with the recipient on a deep genetic level. In the meantime, as many as 3,000 people die per year waiting for that match, and thousands more die from complications that arise from marrow that is a from a close-but-not-perfect match.
Another issue that arises is that, of the miniscule percentage of bone marrow donors in the U.S., only one-fifth of them are minorities. Bone marrow, its formation being deeply dependent on a person’s genetic makeup, means that a transplant must be very specific to the donor’s and the recipient’s ethnicity. People of mixed ethnicity have especially lower odds of finding a match.
For example, a person of Chinese-German-English descent would need a donor of this same specific mix, not just generally Asian and white. The severe bone marrow donor shortage is a growing concern, as many more children are being born of mixed ethnic backgrounds.
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The bottom line is: the more people who are willing to help by donating their bone marrow, the likelihood of finding a perfect match for the thousands of patients in need increases. Patrick, a bone marrow donor, looks at his experience donating blood as something bigger than himself. “The shots were like getting the flu, but it’s only for five days and you’re giving someone a lifetime,” he said. “I was the match for a 2-year-old little boy. I just want him to have a long and healthy life—to have every opportunity I had.”
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