Barry Saunders

Judge Carl Fox using his own cancer to raise awareness among others

Superior Court Judge Carl Fox presides over a hearing in Wake County Superior Court in June 2014.
Superior Court Judge Carl Fox presides over a hearing in Wake County Superior Court in June 2014. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Judges aren’t used to people telling them where to go.

At least not out loud.

Really, now. Who among us hasn’t told a judge – usually under our breath so they can’t hear – where to go?

Fortunately for Superior Court Judge Carl Fox, someone told him where to go and he heard. That’s probably why he’s alive today. Judge Fox has been diagnosed with cancer and has been undergoing chemotherapy for several weeks now.

He initially thought the bump on his right leg was simply a blood clot.

“I felt fine. That’s what’s so bad about it,” Fox told me recently when I spoke with him about his treatment and the difficulty finding a donor whose tissue type matches his. “My girlfriend said she noticed that I was tiring a little more than I did in the past, but I didn’t” notice.

Does he remember the date he was told – after having blood work done – to get himself to the hospital?

“Sure, I do. It was April 21. On the 22nd I was admitted to the hospital,” he said. “The doctor called and told me, ‘You can’t go to court tomorrow. I’m admitting you to the hospital tomorrow, and I’ll call you when the bed’s ready.

“Normally, I might not have gotten that blood work done right then, but because I was so concerned, I went ahead and did it. If I had waited two days, I’d probably be dead,” he said.

A “Save the Fox” Facebook group – intent upon ensuring that doesn’t happen – has been started, with the goal of raising awareness and encouraging people to get tested so that they can donate bone marrow to people who need it. More than 2,100 people have joined the Save the Fox Facebook group, and several events are being planned, including a two-day registration drive next month in Chapel Hill.

There is information about donor drives and how to donate on Fox’s Facebook page and at www.matchfox.org.

Why did Fox decide to be, in his words, “very public about” his illness? “As a public official, you have two choices,” he said. “You can be quiet and the rumors will start, or you can get out front. ... I realized I could control the dialogue if I were proactive.”

Increasing donor diversity

Fox, always known as a compassionate jurist, was nonetheless surprised that he has heard from relatives of people he’s locked up and who want to donate. He said he encourages them to do so, as long as they know there’ll be no quid pro quo and that he’ll still drop the hammer on them if warranted.

Another benefit of his going public, he said, is “I’ve gotten a lot of responses from African Americans who tell me they want to register.”

That is fantastic news to Betsie Letterle of the Be the Match marrow donor registry. Letterle told me, “We really need to increase the diversity. ... Of the 12.5 million people on the registry, only 770,000 identify as black. That sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t matter how many there are until we add the right person who is a match.

“Race matters,” she said, “because patients are most likely to match someone of their own race or ethnicity. There are eight blood types out there, but there are thousands of tissue types.”

Some blacks historically have been reticent about donating parts of their body, vital or otherwise – Who wants to worry about being stripped for parts while otherwise healthy? – because of historical abuses by the medical community. Several years ago, I spoke with Charlene Drew Jarvis, the daughter of Dr. Charles Drew, the black surgeon who developed a way to store blood plasma and thus saved innumerable lives during World War II.

Dr. Drew died in 1950 after a car crash in Burlington, and his daughter debunked a much-circulated myth that he died as a result of being denied treatment at a local hospital because of his color. “My father received the best treatment possible” at Alamance General Hospital following his accident in 1950, said Jarvis, at the time a Washington City Council member.

Letterle said it’s important to dispel another myth – this one about marrow donation. “So many people take what they know from TV shows like “House,” where they show very dramatic marrow collections. Some people don’t join the registry because they have misunderstandings about how painful the process is. People are much more apt to say ‘yes’,” she said, “when they know there’s no pain.”

OK, there is pain, she conceded. How much? “Most people tell us it’s like a low backache you get when you have the flu,” she said. “They take Tylenol, and it’s gone after a couple of days.”

‘Utmost satisfaction’

Most often, she said, there’s not even that much, because marrow is drawn from stem cells the same way you’d give blood.

Fox said, “Even if it were just a little painful, shouldn’t the fact that your bone marrow was an exact match and you’re saving someone’s life bring you the utmost satisfaction? That would be something you’re proud of for the rest of your life.”

Satisfaction and pride, he acknowledged, are not enough to sway some people. “I’ve heard horror stories where a sister wouldn’t give marrow to her brother, where a brother wouldn’t give to his sister,” he said. “I can’t imagine anything more disappointing than for someone to find an exact match and then have someone decide at the last minute that they don’t want to donate.”

Pshaw. That could never happen, could it?

Yes. Twenty-one years ago, I wrote about an 11-year-old boy named Myron who needed a bone marrow transplant to survive. Despite huge odds, an exact match was found.

The donor, though – with no explanation – changed his mind: Myron died before he turned 12.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

‘Save the Fox’ drive

A bone marrow donor drive will be held from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. July 17 and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 18 at University Place (formerly University Mall), 201 S. Estes Drive in Chapel Hill. Find more information about bone-marrow donation – and a link for registering by mail – at nando.com/1dg

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