In the mid 1990s, when my son and daughter were very young, I’d never heard of the bone marrow donations or the special challenges that Mixed-race people faced in finding matches that could save them from blood cancer. When baseball great Rod Carew’s teen daughter Michelle was fighting for her life against myeloid leukemia, I read in The New York Times that, “One obstacle to her finding a donor was her mixed ethnic background. Her father is black, with West Indian and Panamanian roots. Her mother is white with Russian-Jewish roots.”
When I saw that Michelle Carew was #BLEWISH, I felt a new sense of purpose and possibility for my Mixed DNA. So I signed up to be a bone marrow donor. Sadly, I wasn’t called to help Michelle. But I still felt a strong sense of purpose and loved feeling that my background might be valuable to someone else. I proudly remained on the donor registry through multiple relocations and a divorce, until I “aged out” a few years ago. (The United States accepts donors between 18 and 44 years old). I felt sad that I’d never been a match for another Mixed person, but happy that I’d at least been able to try.
Finding a marrow donor is hard enough for people who aren’t racially or ethnically Mixed. But because of the need for the closest possible match, it’s especially challenging for those of us who are Multi-racial.
According to MixedMarrow.org, awareness of the need for Mixed-race donors is growing. “In 2010, more than 65,000 – or 9 percent – of potential donors who joined the Be The Match Registry identified themselves as multiple race,” their website states. Here are some highlight from their site to put the urgency of the need for more Mixed-race donors into focus:
- Every year, over 30,000 people are diagnosed in the US with life-threatening blood diseases like leukemia. For many patients, a bone marrow transplant is their only chance at survival. Only 30% of patients find matching donors within their families. The remaining 70% must search for an unrelated donor.
- On US’s national Be The Match Registry, a total of 30% of donors are minorities and 3% of potential donors self-identify as mixed race. Though this approximately matches U.S. Census data, more mixed-race donors are needed given the sheer genetic diversity of the group.
- Because tissue type is inherited, patients are most likely to match someone of their same race or ethnicity.
- A patient’s likelihood of having a donor on the Be The Match Registry who is willing and able to help save a life is estimated to range from 66 percent to 93 percent, depending on race or ethnicity.
- The NMDP (National Marrow Donor Program) is not able to break down the likelihood of finding a match for patients of mixed heritage. However, the challenge for finding a match is probably greatest in this growing community of racially and ethnically diverse people because the tissue type is very complex. The chance that two people from two different groups will create a new tissue type in children is very high. This is why there is such a great need for donors from all backgrounds to join the Be The Match Registry – to increase the likelihood that all patients will find a match.
Donation Process for Bone Marrow for Mixed Race People
There are three types of donations that can help patients with blood diseases– bone marrow donation, peripheral blood cell donation (PBSC) and umbilical cord blood donation.
- About 76 percent of the time, a patient’s doctor requests a peripheral blood stem cell
(PBSC) donation, a non-surgical, outpatient procedure similar to donating platelets or
- About 24 percent of the time, a patient’s doctor requests marrow, a surgical, outpatient
procedure that takes place at a hospital. General or regional anesthesia is always used.
A third source of cells used in transplants is cord blood, which is collected from the umbilical cord and placenta immediately after a baby is born. It is stored at a public cord blood bank and the cord blood unit is listed on the Be The Match Registry.
The National Marrow Donor Program is a nonprofit organization founded in 1986 and based in Minneapolis, Minnesota that operates the Be The Match Registry of volunteer hematopoietic cell donors and umbilical cord blood units in the United States.
Expectant parents can visit BeTheMatch.org/cord for more information. There is no cost for parents to donate cord blood.
Being Mixed has its joys and challenges. If you’re able, please sign up to be a donor if the time comes when you provide a “match” for another Mixie in need. It’s one way to put our beautifully rich and complicated DNA to work for the greater good.