Be the Match campaign seeks diverse donors

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March 25, 2011
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
New television ads starring professional basketball player Shaquille O’Neal are drawing attention to the bone marrow registry called “Be The Match,” but its presence has always loomed large in Northeast.

The National Marrow Donor Program at 3001 Broadway St. NE employs more than 700 people in Minneapolis, and it serves as the base for a registry of 9 million people willing to donate bone marrow. The company is currently boosting its profile with bigger signs visible from the freeway, a headquarters expansion and an ad campaign designed to meet a desperate need for more minority donors.

Even with millions of people on the registry, only about half of the 10,000 patients who annually search for a bone marrow match can find one. Genetic markers and family ethnic histories need to match up as perfectly as possible to ensure a patient’s body won’t reject the transplant. For some Minnesota patients, that can entail scouring registries in Germany and Sweden for a match, with volunteers flying overseas to pick up bone marrow donations.

“Even for Caucasian patients, which have 75 percent of the [registry’s] donors, they don’t always find a match,” said Kristine Reed, a recruiter for the registry. “You can imagine the extreme struggles that minorities have. It’s almost a death sentence that they can’t find the match that they need.”

Fortunately, the Northeast nonprofit doesn’t need to look far to find diverse recruits. Reed has started meeting with Northeast neighborhood groups, and residents in Waite Park are already thinking about a neighborhood event to grow the registry.

A survivor’s story

Reed works in the Northeast headquarters, and she volunteers locally as a marathon coach to help raise money for leukemia and lymphoma. A leukemia survivor herself, Reed walked her first marathon about 18 months after recovering from a bone marrow transplant, and now she’s looking forward to marathon events in Alaska and even the Great Wall of China.

“Now that I have overcome cancer, I want to go on all these adventures,” Reed said. “My life almost ended at the age of 25. I want to do as much as I can.”

Reed’s leukemia diagnosis turned her life upside down. She had a great job teaching sign language to Koko, the famous gorilla in Northern California. Koko liked to play with dinosaur toys and watch movies — particularly “Babe” and “Mary Poppins” — so Reed taught her to sign words including “movie” and “dinosaur.” One month before her diagnosis, Reed took a job at the Los Angeles Zoo to work in the research department at one of the largest chimp exhibits in the country.

Reed was exhausted from working long hours, but she didn’t consider a doctor visit until she noticed a rash that looked like mosquito bites on her ankles. Blood tests at the checkup found she was anemic, and doctors soon determined the anemia was caused by leukemia.

“I will never forget that day,” she said. “It’s scary. Leukemia oftentimes masks itself with symptoms that you can attribute to poor diet, not enough sleep or the flu.”

Reed can no longer work with apes full-time because of her weakened immune system, so she has worked as an advocate for leukemia patients ever since the diagnosis.

Reed’s bone marrow match came from her sister, and she said the process for donation has never been easier. Registration entails a cheek swab and a short health assessment. If a match is found, donors either give their bone marrow in a process similar to a blood transfusion, or they are given anesthesia and the bone marrow is surgically removed from the back of the pelvic bone. In either scenario, donors can leave the hospital at the end of the day.

“I signed up myself,” said Jeffrey Martin, chair of the Waite Park Community Council. “It’s really an easy process.”

Waite Park first met with Reed about two months ago, and the board members are thinking about teaming with other neighborhoods to plan a bone marrow drive later this spring or summer.

A growing nonprofit

The outreach to Northeast might be long overdue.

“It’s amazing to me how many people don’t know about us,” Reed said.

Since the National Marrow Donor Program began in 1987, it has facilitated more than 40,000 transplants. Today it’s facilitating 5,000 transplants per year, with the goal to double that number by 2015.

In order to do that, the company is modernizing its operating practices, and it expects to add 400 employees by 2019, with 95 new employees added in the past year alone.

Two new “Be The Match” signs are going up on the organization’s headquarters to be visible from I-35W and Highway 280. The signs are so large the company needed special city approval to hang them.

“We are proud of our location and success in Minneapolis and want the community to know we are here and doing good work,” said Michael Boo, the National Marrow Donor Program’s chief strategy officer, in a statement. “We hope this will help get people to ask questions about what we do, and through that process they may become potential donors, volunteers or contributors to support our important work.”

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