BY LAURIE LIKAI – Tami Schwartz has faced great challenges in her struggle with Myelodysplasia Syndrome (MDS) or “Pre” leukemia.
Yet, with each challenging day has come an outpouring of kindness from friends, co-workers and even strangers.
From a large bone marrow drive sponsored by her Seattle-based employer, F5 networks, to the many individual marrow donors across the nation, Tami hoped that one person’s kindness would bring her the help she needed. Little did she know the miraculous ending to this story started 15 years ago and 2,000 miles away.
In 1994, while attending the University of Hawaii, Scott Kikiloi, was touched by the story of Alana Dung, a little girl diagnosed with leukemia in need of a bone marrow transplant.
Wanting to help in any way possible, Scott joined the National Marrow Donor Program along with more than 30,000 Hawaii residents and hoped for the best.
You can imagine his shock when he received a call 15 years later informing him that he was a potential match for Tami Schwartz.
“I can’t help but think how crazy it is, that if I didn’t see Alana Dung’s donation poster at campus center at University of Hawaii at Manoa when I was 19 years old, I would have never gone up to the donation booth and registered,” says Scott. “Fast forward now 15 years and it has made a difference.”
As a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Hawaii, the timing of the donation request posed a potential conflict for Scott. He was preparing for a fieldwork expedition to Mokumanamana Island for a 21 day “Survivor” like research expedition.
Scott had many plans to consider, but after talking to trusted friends and family he ultimately made the decision to help Tami. Scott’s uncle, who was diagnosed with leukemia and went through a similar experience, also impacted his decision.
“This kind of illness could really happen to anyone, including a loved one and if it does I’m sure we would all hope that person who is a match decides to help,” Scott says.
Tami and her family were worried. They knew 50 percent of donor registrants who are potential matches decline to donate their marrow after they are contacted. It can take up to four matches before the registry can find a donor who is both willing and able to participate.
Because one out of three patients with MDS progresses to leukemia, they had to act fast. Additional tests were performed to confirm the match and Scott’s Stem Cell Donation was shipped 2,000 miles to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Treatments for Tami immediately began.
While Scott is multi-ethnic, he was a perfect match for Tami who is of Japanese descent.
Adding to the miracle is the fact that ethnic minorities are significantly underrepresented in the donor registry.
In fact, a South Asian has a 1 in 20,000 probability of finding a matching donor compared to a Caucasian who has a 1 in 15 chance according to the National Marrow Donor Program.
They hope to get the message out: Do not wait to register until someone you care about is the person in need. It might take 5 months for someone not in the registry to be matched to a sick patient, but those in the system can see the time cut in half.
Because of Scott’s sacrifice, Tami has made a steady recovery.
In a letter to her donor, Tami hoped that people would hear about their story and be motivated to become a donor. “Thank you so much for the gift of life and for becoming a special person in my life.”
See more about the donor registry here: http://www.marrow.org/
Laurie Likai is Vice President of Human Resources for the F5 Networks