By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
When someone says, “You’re a lifesaver,” it’s usually a figure of speech. But when special guests said it at Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches’ (A3M) annual fundraising gala on Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Downtown Los Angeles, they really meant it.
A3M is dedicated to finding bone marrow donors for Asian American patients with leukemia and other life-threatening blood diseases. A tissue match between donor and patient is needed for a successful transplant, and the best chance of finding a match is among family members or people of the same ethnic/racial background.
“There’s a lot of things that have changed since the inception of A3M 22 years ago … Back in 1991 there were literally no Asians in the marrow registry,” said A3M Director Shin Ito. “If you were of Asian descent and you had leukemia and you needed a marrow transplant, you pretty much had no chance.
“Now flash-forward to 2013. There are over 750,000 donors of Asian Pacific Islander descent in the marrow registry. That’s wonderful … but at the same time there are still far too many patients that unfortunately just don’t make it, so that’s why we still need to do what we’re doing …
“Every year, 12,000 patients need a marrow transplant … 70 percent of them need to search the marrow registry because they don’t have a sibling match. A3M is able to do 600 drives a year … Over 15,000 donors register at A3m drives every year. Last year 59 donors who registered at A3M drives donated their marrow or blood stem cells to give patients a second chance … When I first joined A3M six years ago, there were only 25 people who registered at A3M drives and donated their marrow or blood stem cells.”
A3M has a tradition of introducing patients to their donors during its annual gala, and this year was no exception.
The patient was Ann Gregory, who is of English/Irish descent on her father’s side and Vietnamese/Chinese on her mother’s side. She was diagnosed in 2007 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). In the absence of a suitable marrow donor, she had an umbilical cord blood transplant after a legal and media battle with her insurance company, which initially called the procedure experimental and refused to cover it.
“I managed to stay in recovery for 13 months before a relapse … It bought me enough time for a donor to be found, and I’m just so grateful,” said Gregory, who was accompanied by her husband, Chris.
The donor was Dana Lau, who registered 16 years ago during a marrow drive for 3-year-old Alana Dung in Hawaii. Lau was not a match for Alana, who later passed away, but 10 years later had another chance to save a life when she was identified as a near-match for Gregory.
“We weren’t a perfect match on the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) front, but she was perfect enough to save my life,” Gregory said. “I just want her to know that she helped facilitate a miracle and I’ll be forever grateful for her selflessness.”
“The Hawaii Bone Marrow Registry team was so helpful and supportive in trying to accommodate my busy life of being a teacher, wife and mother … I remember the love and sometimes protective support of my family and close friends,” said Lau, who was accompanied by her husband, Hung.
Although donors have the option to decline, Lau said, “Ultimately, one thought guided me: How could I not help to save someone else’s life?”
The two couples embraced on stage. Gregory told Lau, “You made this possible. Five years later I’m standing here because of you. I have a lot more years with my best friend, the love of my life.”
Lau said she was thankful for the opportunity and asked Gregory and her husband to “live your days and your lives to the fullest.”
Noting that mixed ancestry makes it harder to find a donor, Gregory told the audience, “That’s why it’s so important for organizations like A3M and all the other ones out there (to be) running drives and registering people of mixed heritage, and I’m just so grateful that they exist.”
Emcee Denise Dador, health specialist for ABC7 Eyewitness News, said, “I’ve met patients before they’ve had their transplants, before they found their match. The sadness, the desperation that you feel when you talk to them … I know how difficult and critical it is to find a match for many.”
She also noted that in one case, a donor’s husband refused to let her go through with the procedure because he feared, incorrectly, that it would affect her ability to have children. Dador stressed the importance of clearing up misconceptions about marrow transplants.
Dador has been honored by the National Marrow Donor Program for helping to promote A3M’s mission.
Another success story is Nancy Sakakura, a wife and mother who was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) in 2002. Already registered as a donor with A3M, she instead became the focus patient of a massive donor recruitment campaign. While her condition deteriorated, two people were identified as matching donors, but both turned out to be unavailable. Finally, a 23-year-old from Japan donated marrow that was successfully transplanted in 2006
“Being sick with a serious illness is something that most people don’t think about,” Sakakura remarked. “When it happens, it’s surreal. There are emotional hurdles as well as financial and logistical challenges. Many families go through extreme financial hardship trying to save a family member, some declare bankruptcy, some divorce, some relocate with no new jobs lined up in order to seek treatment, some people simply give up …
“A3M was really there for me during my journey … A3M helped channel the array of emotions into positive energy keeping us focused on finding that one special donor.”
Sakakura introduced other patients who owe their lives to A3M:
• William Ko was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) at age 33. Roselle Espiritu was found to be a match and the transplant was done in 1994. Ko, who also survived a mild heart attack last year, has sons who are 20 and 23 years old.
• Jenny Hirata was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) at age 9. After chemotherapy and blood and platelet transfusions, the cancer returned. Cynthia Yamaguchi, who registered at a Krafty Delights craft fair, was found to be a match and the transplant took place in 1993. Hirata now performs with a taiko group and is pursuing a master’s degree in speech therapy at CSU Northridge.
“When I was in the hospital or even when I was at school and having kids stare at me, my one wish was to have a normal life,” she said. “I can say that I’m living that right now and I have been for a while. I have my donor Cynthia to thank for that and I also have A3M to thank … Having all of these booths at different events really does save lives.”
• Seung Hong was diagnosed with CML in 1999. A donor was found through A3M, but the man had a medical condition that did not allow him to undergo the procedure. After his condition progressed to AML, another match was found and the transplant was done in 2000. As a result, he was able to celebrate his 60th birthday, walk down the aisle with his daughter, and spend time with his four grandchildren.
• Celine DeGuzman was found to be suffering from aplastic anemia when she was only 8 months old. Luckily, she found a donor in Hawaii in less than six months. Thirteen years later, she is attending junior high school and wants to become a nurse. She met her donor for the first time at an A3M event.
• Christine Pechera was given only a month to live when she was diagnosed with cancer. After enduring high-dose chemotherapy, full-body radiation and a bone marrow transplant, she suffered a relapse and had to find another donor. Eleven years after her diagnosis, she is happily married and graduating from Pepperdine University with a master’s degree. She also was introduced to her donor at an A3M event. Due to an auto accident, she was unable to attend this year’s gala.
• David Bao, a husband and father, was diagnosed with ALL in 2009 and underwent chemotherapy. He found a match through the Tzu Chi Registry and had his transplant that same year. Last month, he was able to meet his donor in Taiwan.
“The trip out there took 31 hours … I had an opportunity to talk to my donor for about 20 minutes … It was truly worth it. She’s an angel,” he said.
• Kaili Nguyen was diagnosed with MDS at age 3. After several cycles of chemotherapy, she found a match through A3M. She suffered a relapse a few months after the transplant, and the doctor gave her more of the donor’s stem cells. Three years later, she is a second-grader who wants to be a pediatrician. She and her donor recently took a trip to San Francisco.
Sakakura also introduced “gifted, amazing, committed doctors” from City of Hope who have treated A3M patients: Auayporn Nademanee, Ryotaro Nakamura, Pablo Parker and Chatchada Karanes.
“I really respect and honor those people who … donate what they have,” Nakamura said. “Without those cells from all these donors, we are no use, actually … You are the ones that keep us moving forward.”
The Human Spirit Award was presented to the founders of the Dale M. Inouye (DMI) Foundation: Randy Kiehm, Harvey Kitani (represented by his wife, Shannon), Scott Mibu and Cathie Tani. Established in memory of Dale Inouye, who died of leukemia in 2008 at the age of 9, the foundation raises funds for cancer care and cancer research through a youth basketball tournament and a golf tournament, and collaborates with A3M in conducting donor registration drives.
Kiehm, an educator and coach with the L.A. Unified School District, said, “Dale lived his life with uncommon courage, determination, inner strength and fighting spirit … He went to school, played basketball, baseball, golf, he performed hula, he was a Boy Scout … he liked visiting Hawaii. And he did all these things with an uncommon zest and enthusiasm, passion and appreciation
“I for one truly believe that Dale’s life and his passing were meant to inspire others. Julianne Inouye, Dale’s mom, would tell a story that got me thinking and led me to believe this. She would say at some point in Dale’s life he became aware of his fate and he had this conversation with his mom. He asked his mom to not forget him, and he asked his mom to not let others forget him.
“I thought, what if … he was thinking how his life could inspire others to better appreciate life or to be more courageous in their life, how his life could inspire others to join the fight against cancer? … He inspired me to do these things. If you think it’s a far-fetched idea because he was just a kid … I simply say that Dale was probably in a place that none of us have ever been before, and maybe in that place he had a clarity that none of us has ever had.”
Tani, an LAUSD educator and longtime friend and UCLA classmate of Dale’s mother, said that during the basketball tournament, held at Cal State Dominguez Hills in August for boys and girls in grades 4 through 8, one player from each grade level receives the Dale Inouye Inner Strength Award. “That player is nominated by his coaches and selected by a committee for a player who demonstrates the kind of life qualities that Dale shared with us, his perseverance, his gratitude to life and his love for his family and friends.”
Krissy Kobata, who is both an A3M volunteer and a patient, closed the program by saying, “There are still patients like me who are looking. My search has been six years … I’m very fortunate that I don’t look sick, I don’t feel sick. My situation is relatively stable for the most part, although you never know what could happen. But of all the people I met throughout the process that I have been diagnosed, all the patients, I’m actually the last one … due to the fact that they couldn’t find donors. It’s a very scary thing.”
She said of A3M, “These people who work day in and day out to try to find people donors — they mean something, and your support means something … Keep spreading the word to friends.”
Other speakers included Gene Kanamori, who co-chaired the event with his wife, Vickie. Entertainment was provided by singer Keiko Kawashima and pianist Scott Nagatani from the Grateful Crane Ensemble. The program also included a silent auction, a marrow donor drive, and a raffle drawing with two round-trip, first-class tickets from American Airlines (represented by Nancy Matsui) as the grand prize.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo