How getting your cheek swabbed can save someone’s life

Bone marrow donor registry puts cure for blood cancer in hands of ordinary people

Life was normal for Louisville high school student Clay Collins, 16, until one day this past spring when he felt extreme tired. He didn’t think much of it at first. However, his mother, Carrie Collins, knew it was unlike her son to be so fatigued. She suggested he go to a doctor.

Clay went to his primary care provider for a checkup. The next day, the doctor’s office called to say Clay was anemic and his blood count was abnormal. They wanted him to be seen by a hematologist that day.

Two hours later, Clay was admitted to Norton Children’s Hospital, where he and his family were told that Clay had acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Leukemia is a type of cancer that forms in blood cells. Acute refers to the quick nature of the spreading condition, and myeloid indicates the exact type of cell the cancer starts from. AML initially begins in bone marrow, however it can rapidly move into the bloodstream if not treated.

William Tse, M.D., a medical oncologist/hematologist with University of Louisville Physicians, regularly interacts with patients in need of bone marrow transplants.

“A bone marrow transplant, or blood stem cell transplant, is a potentially lifesaving procedure that replaces a patient’s diseased blood cells with blood cells derived from a healthy donor,” Dr. Tse said. “A patient might need a bone marrow transplant to cure many types of cancer or leukemia, or to correct genetic defects in blood cell production or immune cell function.”

Clay currently is undergoing chemotherapy, with the hope of receiving a bone marrow transplant soon.

Norton Children’s Cancer Institute

Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the University of Louisville, is home to the Hannah Evans Bone Marrow Transplant Program, the region’s only blood and marrow transplant program dedicated to helping kids.

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Make a difference by joining or giving to Be The Match.

Clay’s mother told a reporter during an interview that more bone marrow donor awareness is needed.

“I’m assuming most people are like me — unless a child or someone really close to you has leukemia, you don’t know much about it and you probably don’t know what a bone marrow transplant is or how important they are,” Carrie said.

The best match is based on a shared tissue type between patient and donor. Unfortunately, no one in Clay’s family matched his specific tissue type markers, so his school, Whitefield Academy, took action to help find Clay a perfect match.

According to Be The Match, the National Marrow Donor Program that coordinates finding suitable transplant donors for patients, 70 percent of individuals who need a bone marrow transplant do not have a matching donor in their family. This means they need stem cell donation from unrelated donors.

“It is difficult for some patients, especially those from ethnic minorities, to find a suitable marrow donor with a perfect match,” Dr. Tse said. “Healthy volunteers are encouraged to be tested as potential donors and be listed in a marrow donor registry.”

With the goal of recruiting more potential donors to the registry, students and staff at Whitefield Academy worked together to coordinate a bone marrow donor drive on May 21. Getting on the registry is as simple as getting a cheek swab and could end up saving the life of someone with leukemia.

Whitefield Academy students also organized fundraisers on Clay’s behalf. They sold “Camo for Clay” wrist bracelets. Plus, they donated money from “Dress Down Days,” when students gave $2 on designated days to wear plain clothes instead of their uniforms.

Their spirit reflects Be The Match registry’s key message: The cure for blood cancer is in the hands of ordinary people.