The importance of bone marrow donation: Chen’s story

Every year, more than 12,000 patients in the United States are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma for which a marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant from an unrelated donor may be their best or only hope of a cure.

Chen Gong is one of them.  A year ago, she was working well over 40 hours a week at an oil and gas manufacturing company doing paperwork in the supply chain department. During her free time, Chen would hang out with friends or go shopping with her mom. These days, she’s still spending a lot of time with her mom – but from a hospital bed at Houston Methodist Hospital, desperately waiting for one unknown person to give her a life-saving bone marrow donation.

Dr. Swaminathan Iyer, hematologist at Houston Methodist Cancer Center, says a staggering 70 percent of patients in need of a transplant do not have a matching donor in their family. They depend on an unrelated bone marrow donor or umbilical cord blood unit.

This illustration shows cells in bone marrow which produce approximately 500 billion blood cells per a day, supporting the body’s immune system.

In the Asian community, more than 720,000 potential donors exist, but that’s only 7 percent of the entire bone marrow donor registry. The numbers aren’t much better for African-Americans or Hispanics, and they’re even more dismal if you’re of mixed race.

A staggering 70% of patients in need of a bone marrow transplant do not have a matching donor in their family Click To Tweet

Chen, a 26-year-old native of Shanghai, China hates the thought of others seeing her sick but at the same time, she needs to find a donor who might help rid her body of recurrent acute myeloid leukemia. Chen was diagnosed in the summer of 2013 after she noticed red spots appearing on her legs. After her initial treatment seemed to work, Chen’s leukemia relapsed this March. She recently finished a round of chemotherapy and now she’s waiting to see if her blood count goes up.

Waiting is the hardest part. I sleep a lot because there isn’t much else to do, and it’s like I have to feel worse before I can get better. I still have a lot I want to do. I want to get married and have a family.

No one in Chen’s immediate family is a full match, which is the ideal candidate who would provide a perfect genetic match. Chen’s dad is a half match, but her medical team at Houston Methodist Cancer Center want to hold off, as her immune system might reject the marrow.

Chen and her Houston Methodist physicians, including oncologist Daniel Lehane, M.D., are hoping that more people, especially minorities, between the ages of 18 and 44 will join the registry. If you’ve thought about joining but haven’t made the decision yet, Dr. Iyer wants people to understand the following:

  • It’s a simple cheek swab. You don’t actually donate until you are a match for a patient
  • You don’t have to be the same blood type, but there are 10 markers in your DNA that have to match the recipient
  • Bone marrow donations are not painful. Donors are typically under general anesthesia during the withdrawal of liquid marrow from the back of the pelvic bone. Donors go home the same day and are back to their usual routines within a few days with only a small amount of discomfort.

Learn how you can donate bone marrow for a patient like Chen.

Gale Smith

Gale Smith

Public Relations Manager at Houston Methodist
Gale Smith has worked in PR for the past 12 years, having previously worked at a major Houston law firm. Prior to entering public relations, Gale spent seven years in television news as a producer at several Houston stations, including KTRK, ABC 13; KHOU, CBS 11; and KRIV, Fox 26.She received her B.A. in Radio/Television with a minor in Journalism from the University of Houston.
Gale Smith

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Gale Smith

Gale Smith has worked in PR for the past 12 years, having previously worked at a major Houston law firm. Prior to entering public relations, Gale spent seven years in television news as a producer at several Houston stations, including KTRK, ABC 13; KHOU, CBS 11; and KRIV, Fox 26. She received her B.A. in Radio/Television with a minor in Journalism from the University of Houston.