Bone Marrow Donor Drive Reaches Out On Campus

Photo: Charles Cheung registers to become a bone marrow donor by sending in a swab from his cheeks as a part of the
Taryn Erhardt/Photo
Charles Cheung registers to become a bone marrow donor by sending in a swab from his cheeks as a part of the "Cure Sonia" campaign.

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When Sonia Rai, 24, was diagnosed in early December with acute myelogenous leukemia, an aggressive cancer that would require her to have a bone marrow transplant as soon as she was in remission, her family knew that they had to act quickly to find a donor.

Since her diagnosis, her family has been holding bone marrow and stem cell registration drives - around 100 total, including a four-day event at UC Berkeley last week - throughout the nation in order to try to find a match for Rai, a UC Irvine graduate, and encourage others to register as bone marrow donors.

Pooja Bhatnagar, a recent UCLA graduate and Rai's niece, said Rai's brother, Sumit Rai, went to Bostonwhere Rai lives and immediately began contacting everyone he knew to start setting up drives as part of the "Cure Sonia" campaign following his sister's diagnosis.

Since then, drives have been held in 10 states - from college campuses to temples to restaurants - and the campaign has even gotten the attention of Bollywood actors voicing their support in videos on a website dedicated to Rai.

Rai is currently undergoing chemotherapy for her leukemia. According to Kamini Rai Cormier, Rai's cousin and a UC Berkeley alumna, as soon as she goes into remission, she will need to have a bone marrow transplant.

"We're working against a ticking clock," she said. "Every day counts. It's very intense to be working against that deadline."

At UC Berkeley's Upper Sproul Plaza, family members and friends of Rai, clad in bright orange shirts with "Cure Sonia" written across the front, were passing out fliers from Jan. 18 to Jan. 21, encouraging individuals to register. According to Mellissa Perez Bixler, outreach coordinator for AADP and a representative at Friday's drive on campus, the campaign was able to register about 266 donors over four days.

Though the drive sought mostly South Asian donors because of an increased probability to find Rai a match, anyone interested was encouraged to register.

However, according to Carol Gillespie, treasurer and executive director for the Asian American Donor Program, statistically it is much more difficult for ethnic minorities to find a donor than it is for Caucasians.

"The goal is to recruit in all these communities to add more people to the registry so these people don't have to go without finding a donor," she said.

UC Berkeley freshman Naveen Venkatesan was one of the individuals who said he registered as a bone marrow donor because of the drive. He said that his mother died of breast cancer a few years ago, and he did not want other individuals to deal with the same suffering.

"I've never donated blood because it sounded pretty scary before," he said. "But I'd be willing to do this."

Registrants must send in a swab from the inside of their cheeks, which will be evaluated for human leukocyte antigens - proteins that sit on top of white blood cells - that match up to Rai's or other patients. The registration process takes about five weeks, according to Cormier.

Adam Luther, a UC Berkeley alumnus, was helping to register donors at Friday's drive and said that the loss of his own brother, along with the bonds he had within the South Asian community and with Rai's family inspired him to help with the cause.

"If I can give a few hours of my time to help someone in a struggle for their life, I'd begin to feel as if I'd served humanity," he said.

Both Bhatnagar and Cormier said one of the challenging aspects of finding donors is educating individuals about bone marrow transplants beyond their preconceived notions about how invasive bone marrow transplants typically are.

Cormier said though certain sacrifices have to be made in the short term in order to get the momentum to help maximize the drives and though the work can become tiring, the drives keep workers motivated.

"As each person comes to the registration table, I think, 'this could be somebody's match,'" Cormier said. "That keeps you motivated to keep the energy going."


Victoria Pardini covers Berkeley communities Contact her at [email protected]

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