By Gabrielle Johnston
Ohio University junior Erica Cohen hopes a bone marrow drive she is leading on the Athens campus next week will infuse a national donor list with new blood and -- although the odds are steep -- turn up a match for a 16-year-old transplant patient from her native Pittsburgh.
It all began for Cohen after a close friend was diagnosed with leukemia. Her desire to help eventually led to Amy Katz, a 16-year-old girl from Pittsburgh who was diagnosed with the same deadly disease in 2003.
Cohen was able to contact Katz's family through a network of community members and synagogues and find out about Amy's Army, a group of volunteers devoted to finding a match for Katz. Cohen joined its ranks and decided to bring the search for a donor to Ohio University.
The result is "Got Swabbed?" a bone marrow donor drive set for 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, in the Baker University Center third-floor atrium. With an ambitious goal of 1,300 donors, Cohen and her team of volunteers from event co-sponsors Hillel and Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity hope to not only find a donor for Katz, but also increase the ranks of the national donor list.
The Residents' Action Council and Division of Student Affairs also are supporting Cohen's efforts.
If "Got Swabbed?" reaches its target of 1,300 donors, the drive could break records, Cohen said. (The Guinness Book of World Records' official bone marrow drive record involved 277 registrants in Austria. Last month, bone marrow donor drives in New York and New Jersey surpassed that number with more than 1,000 registrants each, but they've not been documented by Guinness.)
"It's blown up to this huge thing, which is wonderful," Cohen said. "It's overwhelming -- in a good way."
But the possibility of a getting into the record books isn't nearly as important to Cohen as bolstering the number of potential donors known to the National Marrow Registry (NMR).
"College students are a gold mine," Cohen said. "They (NMR organizers) want young, healthy donors."
Eligible donors stay on the NMR until age 61, leaving a wide expanse of time for donation opportunities. Cohen said successful donor matches often arise from a pool of those with similar heritage and ethnic backgrounds.
"It was something I could easily relate to," Cohen said of Katz's situation, noting that both she and Katz are of Jewish heritage.
DKMS Americas, the world's largest donor center, will supply all of the materials necessary for the bone marrow donor drive. The initial test is a simple process, consisting of swabbing the inside of a potential donor's cheek, sealing the sample in an envelope and sending it to DKMS. From there, potential donors will be added to the NMR.
Cohen said of those donors who could eventually be matched with a patient, 70 percent to 80 percent will be asked make a PBSC donation. The National Marrow Donor Program describes making a PBSC donation as similar to giving plasma. Blood is removed and passed through a machine to separate out certain cells and then returned to the donor.
But, it's the discomfort of a bone marrow transplant procedure that can scare potential donors, Cohen said. Twenty percent to 30 percent of matched donors are asked to undergo the bone marrow transplant procedure, which involves drawing bone marrow from the lower hip area.
"It's not debilitating," she said. "You can still do everything you want."
With a shrug, she added, "You might not be able to go to Ping for a week, but, you're (potentially) saving a person's life."
While DKMS is providing all the materials for the drive, Cohen feels obligated to help allay other costs the donor center will incur. It takes $65 to register each new potential donor with the NMR, a fee DKMS also will pay, and if "Got Swabbed?" meets its goal of 1,300 donors, the price tag will be almost $85,000. Cohen plans to hold a raffle the day of the drive and also is looking for other ways to raise money.
For more information about "Got Swabbed?" or the fight against leukemia, contact Cohen at 412-496-0474 or Erica.firstname.lastname@example.org or Amanda Nable, of DKMS, at 212-209-6704 or Amanda@dkmsamericas.org.