By BILL WATANABE
What makes a hero? To me, a great example of a hero is Lenny Skutnik. You might ask, who is Lenny Skutnik?
Back in January 1982, a passenger airliner crashed into a bridge over the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. on a snowy day in the depth of winter and dozens of passengers were killed. Lenny Skutnik, a federal government employee, and hundreds of other witnesses were watching the rescue operations from the banks of the Potomac. A woman who survived the crash was thrashing helplessly in the freezing waters and Lenny dove in and rescued her by pulling her to the shore.
Hands down, that is a true hero, someone who put others as more important than himself. I am pretty sure I would not have had the nerve to do what he did, aside from the fact that I can’t swim and I am an extreme “samugari” (a Japanese word for someone who can’t take the cold). But heroes and sheroes can come in many ways.
The A3M project (Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches), a project of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) and funded for many years by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), has closed its doors as of the end of December 2021. This marks the end of a 30-year run, working with great success to recruit potential Asian American marrow donors in order to help save the lives of those fighting various blood diseases and cancers.
I can remember the time when some volunteers and I started the A3M project under the auspices of LTSC back in 1991. At that time, if an Asian American needed a life-saving bone marrow transplant and they did not have a marrow-matching sibling, their chances of finding an unrelated bone marrow donor was essentially nil – zero, zippo, zilch. There was very little hope for such patients back then.
A3M, in the early days, had to overcome some strong API cultural hesitancy about donating marrow or receiving marrow from a stranger. Because the transplant procedure is more complicated than donating blood, A3M had to do a lot of outreach and education in various API languages. But these barriers were overcome because there was never a lack of compassion and support by A3M for those who needed a transplant due to serious blood diseases like leukemia.
By the time A3M closed shop 30 years later, hundreds of thousands of APIs were tested and their names entered into the national bone marrow registry, and hundreds of APIs received life-saving bone marrow transplants. This represented a total sea change difference in saving lives!
The chances of survival for APIs are no longer close to zero but now allow API patients to have great hope in finding a compatible bone marrow match – Hallelujah!
I suspect a good number of you have participated in one of A3M’s drives and signed up to be a potential marrow donor – thank you! Some of you may have helped to set up a drive or volunteered at an A3M event or donated funds or helped to fundraise for A3M – again, thank you! And if you were one of the select few who donated marrow to help another person – thank you!
All of these folks who gave their time, their money, and even their bone marrow are heroes and sheroes of the first order!
The effort to find more potential API marrow donors will continue through the NMDP “Be the Match” program. Persons interested in helping or getting information about finding a match can go to www.a3mhope.org for information. Susan Choi, who headed up A3M before its closure, is now working for NMDP as the API outreach coordinator and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for a direct contact.
We can all be heroes and sheroes by supporting important projects like this.
Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.