Not far from the tailgating fun at N.C. Central University’s Homecoming game Saturday, revelers gave a little bit of themselves to a project that may save the life of a fellow Eagle.
NCCU’s “Swabs for Sheldon” event saw students, faculty and alumni take a few minutes from the party to swab their cheeks for genetic information to be entered into a national bone marrow donor registry. The result could be a match for NCCU sophomore Sheldon Mba (pronounced “EM-ba”), or anyone else who may need a bone marrow transplant to save their lives.
Mba, 19, was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder last year and takes eight medications a day. He said events such as Saturday’s bone marrow drive help increase awareness of the critical need for donors.
“People can see a smiling face on a video and say, ‘That’s nice,’” Mba said. “But if you see the smiling face walking around you, it’s a little different when you tell them, ‘I need a match or the prognosis is death.’”
Mba, who is black, has become the national face for a partnership between Be The Match and DoSomething.org to increase the number of bone marrow donors of color.
It’s possible for a person to be a match for someone of a different ethnicity, but the chances are significantly greater if the donor and recipient have the same ancestry.
Betsie Letterle, account executive for the National Marrow Donor Program, said there’s a critical need to get people of African-American, Hispanic and Native American backgrounds to register. Only 7 percent of the 12 million names in the Be The Match Registry are African-American.
“By comparison, as a Caucasian, my chances of finding a match would be from a pool the size of North America,” Letterle said. “Sheldon’s chances would be the size of Jordan Lake.”
Saturday’s event at NCCU, one of the state’s historically black colleges and universities, fit the bill. Events at universities are especially important because donors between the ages of 18 and 44 have the greatest chance of transplant success.
“I came to give a brother some help,” said Brian Hargrove, 42, an engineer from Durham, who registered Saturday.
A person is diagnosed with a blood cancer every four minutes and someone dies every 10 minutes from a blood cancer, according to Be The Match.
“Even if I’m not a match for Sheldon, there’s someone else I might be able to help,” said Alexander Scott, a NCCU senior who registered Saturday. “I know there are a lot of other people who have the same issues.”
One of the goals of Saturday’s event was to bust myths perpetuated by television shows such as “House” and movies such as “Seven Pounds” that donating marrow is painful or difficult.
Letterle said they may only need a donor to provide stem cells from a blood transfusion in the arm.
In cases where bone marrow is needed from the pelvic bone, Letterle said it involves a surgery in which the donor is under anesthesia and doesn’t feel any pain. After being discharged from the outpatient procedure, donors may briefly experience some soreness.
“If I can save a life, I don’t mind feeling a little sore,” said Amber Martinez, a secretary at Hillside High School in Durham.
Martinez came Saturday because she remembered Mba from his time as a student at Hillside.
Other friends and acquaintances of Mba came to register Saturday, including a childhood friend, Davitta Singletary.
“I would definitely help if I could save someone’s life,” said Singletary, 19, a NCCU sophomore. “If I could save my best friend’s life, that would be special.”