For attorney and Chapel Hill resident Dani Toth, Superior Court Judge Carl Fox is a family friend and former boss.
Now, with Fox fighting myelodysplastic syndrome, a condition in which the body cannot produce enough healthy new blood cells, Toth is hoping to give back. She volunteered for a donor drive organized by Delete Blood Cancer at University Place on Friday and Saturday, seeking a bone marrow donor for Fox.
Toth is personally invested in the cause. Last year, her husband passed away from the same condition.
“When Carl was diagnosed, it really hit home,” she said.
Lauren Dickerson, also an attorney and friend of Fox’s, said she hoped to find him a match at the drive.
“He’s my hero, I adore him,” she said.
She wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Many of the nearly 300 donors who turned out over the two-day drive know Fox and spoke of the giving character and cheerful personality that people identify with the state’s first black district attorney.
Diagnosed in late April, Fox needs a bone marrow transplant within three or four months but has yet to find a match. His family and friends, including his girlfriend Julia Smith, teamed up to create a strategic plan that would not only seek a match for Fox, but also for the 14,000 blood cancer patients diagnosed annually who need an unrelated donor.
Their “Save the Fox” Facebook page, launched in early June, quickly rose to 3,000 followers, and #savethefox has marked their Twitter campaign.
Fox knows that the odds are stacked against him. But he’s optimistic about the movement.
“I have never put a thought in the response – that it would be this big,” he said during an interview at home Saturday. “I’m so thrilled ... that people are now taking pride in the fact that they’re doing this.”
The donor drive was held in July because of its significance as National African American Bone Marrow Awareness Month. African-Americans make up only 7 percent of the national bone marrow registry. This makes finding a match even more difficult for Fox, since a patient is more likely to find a match from someone of a similar heritage.
“I’ve had three bone marrow biopsies. I’d gladly do another one if it was going to save someone’s life,” Fox said. “It’s not about me, it’s about the greater good, it’s about everyone on that (waiting) list. Because anyone in this country could be on that list tomorrow.”
Each participant needs to be between the ages of 18 and 55, in good health – including a BMI of less than 40 and never having fought cancer – and not in the military or reserves.
After meeting those qualifications, participants register information about health and heritage, swipe a cotton swab inside their cheeks and have an option of covering the $65 that it costs for Delete Blood Cancer to register them.
If a match is found, the donor must be willing to travel and undergo either a peripheral stem cell removal, which takes the stem cells out of the blood, or a bone marrow extraction procedure under general anesthesia.
About 50 percent of donors who register later back out, said Delete Blood Cancer donor recruitment director Jodee Ruppel. She said it’s tragic because their donation would save a life.
Fox said he wants to find a match for every patient waiting for a transplant.
“I don’t want anybody to die because they don’t have a match for a donor,” he said. “I think that’s something we can do.”
Ruppel said the procedure is misunderstood and is less painful than TV shows such as House or Grey’s Anatomy have made it appear.
“We’ve made a concerted effort to make it clear that it doesn’t hurt,” said Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood, who made it out to the drive Saturday as a friend of Fox’s. He added that even with some pain, comparable to bruising your tailbone, it’s worth going through to save a life.
Phil Ford, a former UNC point guard and retired NBA player, spent the weekend posing for photos and signing autographs to garner donors and support his friend.
“Just the fact that he’s battling his disease in such a public manner to help others speaks to the person he is,” Ford said of Fox. “If I was in his shoes, I know he would be doing all this to help me. ...We don’t think about stuff like this until it affects people close to us.”
To make a financial donation or request a swab kit to be sent to your home, visit DeleteBloodCancer.org.