Seeking to address the racial disparities between Black and Caucasian blood cell donors, the National Marrow Donor Program’s registry foundation, Be the Match, held a reception at the Atlanta History Center on Tuesday, March 3, to announce its latest initiative to add 10,000 new African Americans blood stem cell transplant donors to its registry through investing in the Atlanta community.
According to Be the Match, African Americans or Black patients have a 23 percent chance of finding a matched, available donor, in comparison to White patients who have a 77 percent chance.
Erica Jensen, Senior Vice President and member of Engagement and Enrollment and Experience of Be the Match emphasized the foundation’s renewed mission to bring resources to Atlanta in partnership with the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory and their Northside Hospital who have already raised a million for the cause.
“We are rebooting an initiative where we know Atlanta is made up of change makers and history makers,” Jensen said. “And we’re going to leverage the strength of the African American community here in Atlanta, in this amazing city, so we can drive change across business, across healthcare, across public affairs, and really across our school system in our HBCUs.”
In acknowledgment of one million dollars not sufficing to succeed their mission, Jensen further shared that Be the Match is investing three million dollars in Atlanta over the next nine months dedicated to help increase the amount of African American donors.
“I’m fortunate that in my career already, we do have a cure, and one of those cures is bone marrow transplant,” said Dr. Staci Arnold, an oncologist and hematologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and professor at Emory University. “But as Erica said, unfortunately, that isn’t an option for many because we don’t have enough donors that look like all the children and adults who are suffering from these illnesses.”
There are many common myths about blood stem cell donation such as it being painful, dangerous, expensive and gay men not being able to donate. However, those myths are untrue.
According to the Be the Match, joining only takes a cheek swab; donating is less painful than most people think, there are rarely any long-term side effects, it’s free, and gay men and others in the LGBTQ+ community can join the registry and donate.
A couple more clarifying facts about blood stem cell donation, you must be at least 18-years-old to donate and donors can donate more than once.
Atlanta resident and Grambling State alumna Natalia Stroman spoke next and shared how she knew nothing about being a match but decided to become a donor when she encountered an outreach table on her campus, around the time rapper Nelly was searching for a match for his sister, who later succumbed to her condition. She further explained the smooth donor process, what she says only took a couple of hours in which was flown out to UCLA in Los Angeles.
“I’m 33, I donated in 2012. I haven’t had any complications, any scarring, any pain,” Stroman said. “And it’s become a ritual up until this last August where I get a phone call where they check on me, see what my status was and I got to check on my recipient and make sure she was okay. I donated to a 12-year-old girl who had lymphoma.
She continued, “If you ever need to see a smiling face who can tell you how exciting it is to become a superhero, I compel you to be a part of the team and at least swab and get registered let everybody know that you met someone who is a superhero!”
Dekalb County Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson, Super District 7 was in attendance and mentioned how she believes the goal of 10,000 donors is too low. Therefore, to the cause, she will dedicate every resource at her disposal within Dekalb County, including their public access network.
“This is mission work and in the United States with over 20 million potential donors currently on the Be the Match Registry, only 4 percent of those – 4 percent are Black or African American,” Cochran-Johnson said. “This number in no way meets the needs of the segment of our community which we must serve. It’s time for us to come together to work progressively. So, this campaign and the launch is very important.”
Constance Benson, 32, was born with type SS sickle cell anemia disease but is a bone marrow transplant recipient who was cured by her younger sister. She credits her mother who is a nurse for connecting her with Be the Match, who she says played an intricate part in her journey.
“I feel fantastic now. Life is completely different,” Benson exclaimed. “I’m pain free and the most I have to take is an Advil or Aspirin. So, God is good. It was so worth it, it was a journey, it wasn’t easy. But would I do it again? In a heartbreak, knowing the life that I have now, absolutely.”