Five years ago, when he was 27 years old, Antoinette O'Neil's son was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
"It is usually associated with older people," she said. The condition meant her son, Kevin, needed a bone-marrow transplant. Fortunately, her daughter, Kelly, was an excellent match, and the transplant has been a success.
"There was a one in four chance that she would be a great match, but she was," Antoinette O'Neil said. "He looks good and feels good. It's been 41/2 years."
End of story, right?
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Well, not quite.
See, before her son's diagnosis, O'Neil had never given any thought to those in such situations, she said. She had never heard of the National Marrow Donor Program, which operates the Be the Match Registry.
But when she traveled to Seattle with her son in 2008 for the transplant, she saw other patients who were on the registry and still waiting for a match.
"I personally felt guilty about that," she said. "We would have gone to the registry, but we found a match with his sister. That is really why I have gotten involved with Be the Match. It is because of both guilt and gratitude."
Those emotions compelled O'Neil to spearhead a local effort to register more people who could be marrow donors. Far too many people suffer with illnesses such as leukemia, lymphoma and sickle cell that can be treated with a simple procedure from someone who could be a neighbor, co-worker or a stranger in another state or country.
Potential donors should be ages 18 to 60, and in fairly good health. The best donors are between 18 to 44. Tissue types are inherited, so race and ethnicity are important. Everyone of every background needs to sign up.
To join, you simply fill out an information packet and give a cheek swab. That's it.
I was on the registry for several years before being diagnosed with lung cancer. I often wondered what would happen if an official from the registry called and said I had the ability to help give someone a second chance. But no one called.
Every few years, I received a request to update my information, which I did.
Even if I had not survived lung cancer twice, now that I'm 61 I'm not a good candidate. Seems younger donors produce more and better quality cells than older ones.
Had I received a call, though, the extraction of bone marrow would have been conducted through an outpatient surgical procedure, under general or regional anesthesia in a hospital. Doctors use needles to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of the pelvic bone.
A non-surgical outpatient method involves peripheral blood stem cell donation. The number of blood-forming cells in the donor's bloodstream is increased over a five-day period, then the blood is removed through a needle in one arm. It is passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells, then the returns the blood to the donor through the other arm.
After her son's successful transplant, O'Neil looked for ways to inform more people about the registry and to get more people involved. She settled on directing her efforts toward the faith community.
"Loving your neighbor as yourself is so basic to Islam, Christianity and Judaism," she said. "I thought going to places of worship was a better way of finding people who would say, 'This child or person is in need and I should join the registry.'"
So she and other volunteers have set up times next week at three worship centers to sign up donors. The Interfaith Be the Match Registry Drive will be available June 8 at Temple Adath Israel, June 9 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington and June 10 at St. Paul A.M.E. Church.
But before those dates, O'Neil wants volunteers who can be trained to go to those houses of worship or other centers in the future to register donors. A regional representative of Be the Match will conduct a 90-minute training session at 7:30 p.m. June 7 at the Unitarian Church, 3564 Clays Mill Road.
"It's not difficult," O'Neil said. "It's about helping people do cheek swabs and making sure people understand what they are doing by joining the registry."
Some disqualifiers for donors include HIV, hepatitis, heart disease, chronic lung disease, significant obesity, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and diabetes requiring insulin.
But even if you are ineligible to register, you can be trained as a volunteer.
Had her daughter not been a good match for her son, O'Neil said, she hoped that someone on the registry would have had marrow cells to donate.
"Because of my own ignorance I wasn't on the registry to help someone else's loved one," she said. "It's the golden rule, isn't it? I failed to live by it. I should have been on the registry."