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LITTLE TOKYO : Bone-Marrow Donor Group Seeks Asians

October 18, 1992|IRIS YOKOI

Nick Susuki died of leukemia in June, 1991, at age 35 as his family sought a bone-marrow donor to offer him another chance at life. Amanda Chiang, an infant also stricken with leukemia, likewise died before a donor could be found.

Susuki, Chiang and countless other blood-disease patients of Asian descent might have survived if there had been more Asian bone-marrow donors. But in a national pool of donors, the number of Asians his been particularly small.

But today, thanks to the efforts of Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches, or A3M, blood-disease patients like Joan, a 29-year-old Westwood resident who asked not to be further identified, have a better chance of finding a bone-marrow donor and getting a life-saving transplant.

A3M was formed a year ago by several patients' relatives in an effort to recruit more Asian donors for the National Marrow Donor Program. Partly because of A3M's efforts, the number of Asian donors has grown four-fold, from 5,800 Asians out of 242,500 donors nationwide in December, 1990, to 24,700 Asians out of 675,000 donors nationwide today.

Patients are more likely to find matching bone marrow among their own ethnic group. Tissue types, which are inherited and can be traced to specific geographic origins, must match perfectly for a successful transplant.

"If you're white, it's much easier to find a donor because there are more whites in the national registry," said Dr. Gary Schiller, a hematologist-oncologist at UCLA Medical Center, where more than 1,200 bone-marrow transplants have been done since 1972. "Yet these malignancies, like leukemia, are equal-opportunity diseases."

Because of the difficulty in finding a perfect match, the number of Asian donors--3.7% of the national pool--is still not enough, donor recruiters say. So A3M staff and volunteers diligently work out of a small Little Tokyo office, distributing educational materials and scheduling blood drives to drum up blood and bone-marrow donors.

Only a blood test is needed to be listed as a potential donor. If the preliminary blood test matches, additional tests are conducted to confirm a good match.

"It was very hard to let (Susuki) slip away like that," said Sharon Sugiyama, Susuki's aunt and one of the A3M founders. "It'd be so simple if we could get everyone to say, 'Sure, I'm willing to be tested. Give me a call.' "

Only five Asians nationwide, or about 2.4% of all Asian patients in need of marrow transplants, have undergone the procedure since the national donor program began in 1986, according to Sugiyama. Meanwhile, 14% of all Anglo patients in need of marrow have had transplants, she said.

A key challenge for A3M recruiters is persuading people that donating marrow is not an excruciating, debilitating process.

Donors experience some pain afterward because of the puncturing of bone, but donor Mariko Saum described it as minor discomfort.

"Looking back, the bone marrow (donation) was a piece of cake," said Saum, 38, a Marina del Rey resident who donated in May, 1991, and returned to work two days later. "It takes about 20,000 (donor) tries to match. Taking three days out of your life to save somebody isn't too much to ask. In fact, I'd do it again."

Joan, whose illness was diagnosed as leukemia in April, hopes to find a matching donor soon; transplants are most successful if done within the first year of diagnosis. She counts herself lucky that she has not come down with any symptoms. "I live a normal life, and I'm very optimistic for the future," she said.

Asian donor drives are scheduled for Oct. 25 at the True Light Chinese Presbyterian Church, 2500 Griffin Ave.; at Oikos Community Church, 9336 E. Rose St. in Bellflower, and in North Hollywood.

Information: (213) 626-3406 or 3827.

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