Durham News: Opinion

June 20, 2014

Sheldon Mba: How to save a life

I am one of thousands of Americans who are searching for a special stranger to help save my life.

I am one of thousands of Americans who are searching for a special stranger to help save my life.

For two years, I have been battling a life-threatening blood disease while attending N.C. Central University. All the while, I have been searching for a matching donor who can provide a bone marrow transplant – my only option for a cure.

That is why on June 12, I visited Washington, D.C., in support of Be The Match, the world’s leading nonprofit organization focused on saving lives through bone marrow and cord blood transplantation.

I joined more than a dozen other transplant advocates in presenting Congress with a two-fold request: Protect access to life-saving bone-marrow and cord blood transplants, and continue to provide critically important federal funding for programs that will help more Americans survive blood cancers and other diseases.

The disease I am fighting is severe aplastic anemia with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH). I was diagnosed in May 2012, shortly after the loss of my father, and after months of experiencing stomach pains and prolonged fatigue.

Like 70 percent of patients who need bone-marrow transplants, I don’t have a matching donor in my family. That’s why my doctors have turned to the Be The Match Registry, with access to 22.5 million donors and 601,000 cord blood units worldwide.

While that number sounds vast, it’s not enough for many patients. People are most likely to match someone who shares their ancestry, and African American patients, like me, have the lowest odds of finding a match compared to all other populations. More African-American donors and others with diverse heritages are urgently needed to save more lives.

One thing is for sure: I can’t sit idly by while my doctors continue to search for my best match. I’m the acting president of the newly formed Be The Match On Campus chapter at my school. I also work one-to-one, urging people to join the ranks of potential bone-marrow donors. In 2013 alone, these efforts helped recruit more than 4,000 people to the Be The Match Registry during “Swab For Sheldon” donor registry drives.

Congress also has a critical role to play, by funding nationwide programs that help increase the size and diversity of national Be The Match Registry, as well as to support research that will increase transplant success. Unfortunately, under sequestration, the programs have been cut by approximately $3 million. That means as many as 20,000 willing volunteers and 1,000 cord blood units may not be added to the national registry.

Restoring pre-sequestration level funding to both programs will help more people find a match and will save lives.

While in D.C., we also asked the Capitol Hill community to join the Be The Match Registry as potential bone-marrow donors. People between the ages of 18 and 44 who meet health guidelines and are willing to donate to any patient in need are encouraged to join. Registration involves completing a health history form and giving a swab of cheek cells.

The process is simple and means the world to patients who are suffering. After people hear my story, I hope they realize that they can save a life. There is a cure for this cancer and many others – we just need people to act.

For information on how you can support Be The Match go to BeTheMatch.org/advocacy

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