An 81-year-old Oakland man was among the 42 people who responded to a call to save the life of 14-year-old cancer patient Cynthia Rodriguez, who needs a bone marrow transplant, by showing up at a bone marrow drive on Thursday at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center.
The event was hosted by the National Bone Marrow Program, and although organizers turned the man away, along with a few other well-wishers who were either over the 61-year age limit or already on the donor registry and waiting for a patient in need, the outpouring of support nearly drove Cynthia’s mother, Ericka Rodriguez, to tears.
“I know in my heart that there is someone out there [a bone marrow match] form Cynthia and I am grateful that Kaiser Permanente is allowing us to do this drive,” Rodriguez said. “ It only takes one person to be the match, but think of all the lives we could save.”
Cynthia’s parents learned that she had leukemia when she was 12 years old. Erica Rodriguez, who used to work at a cancer center herself, said the news was hard for her daughter to accept, as it meant that she could no longer play her favorite sports, softball, baseball and soccer. “She didn’t even know or understand what it meant,” Rodriguez said. “The most difficult part for her was adjusting from being an active athlete to doing nothing.”
Many of the people who responded to the call to register as potential donors were employees at the Oakland Medical Center. Lowanda Moore, a social worker at the center, was among the first people to sign up to the Be The Match registry on Thursday, which sought to find a match for Cynthia and expand the registry. “I probably would have done it anyway, but Cynthia went to the same elementary school as my son, and her brother was my son’s classmate,” Moore said.
Like Moore, many of the people who registered in support of Cynthia have had a personal connection with leukemia patients. Neeta Shah, a resident pediatrician who met Cynthia as a patient at the hospital, signed up for the national bone marrow donation registry in 2004. “I just wanted to make sure I am still on the list,” Shah said. “I have been on the registry for eight years and have not been called yet.”
Many of the people on the registry will not hear back for years until a match is found.
Like 70 percent of cancer patients, Cynthia Rodriguez could not find a match within her family. Additionally, because she is of Hispanic descent, she needs a bone marrow transplant from a donor of a similar ethnic background. A genetic match is needed for blood marrow donors to reduce the risk that the body will reject the transplant.
The National Marrow Donor Program reports that Hispanics are among the least represented groups on the national registry, which has more than 10 million potential donors. Hispanic donors only constitute 10 percent of the national registry, while African Americans constitute seven percent.
“We need more diversity on the registry,” said Kimberly Nall, a National Marrow Donor Program account executive who spearheaded the campaign. “Various ethnic groups have a hard time finding a match. African Americans have the hardest time finding a match, and Hispanics are also poorly represented.”
But Nall said that religious beliefs, myths and the perception that donating bone marrow is a painful process prevent some people from signing up for the registry.
Of the 42 people that showed up on Thursday, 13 identified themselves as Caucasian, 12 as Hispanic, seven as Asian, six as African American and four as multi-racial, reflecting the demographic imbalances that Nall said continues to make it difficult for Hispanics and African Americans to find a match.
“I just thought it would be awesome if I donated,” said Lani Riccobuono, a UC Berkeley graduate who is interning in the palliative care center and who identified herself as mixed race donor. “I had never thought about it until now.”
This week’s bone marrow drive was the third held in support of Cynthia Rodriguez. The Rodriguez family has tried all avenues to find a donor for Cynthia, including printing flyers and distributing them in public spaces and working through their church, which managed to register 107 potential donors.
There are at least 7,000 people looking for a match across the country, and the National Marrow Donor Program finds a match for at least 500 people each month, according to Nall. Hispanic patients, according to the National Marrow Donor Program, have 72 percent chance of finding a match.
To contribute to the Cynthia Rodriguez bone marrow drive or join the registry in Cynthia’s name, visit: http://join.bethematch.org/CRod
To join the Be The Match Registry or contribute to the National Bone Marrow Program, visit the Be The Match website.