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By Rose Hoban

State employees rallied to support one of their own on Wednesday at the legislative building in an effort to save the life of a lobbyist who represents the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

Jim Blaine, Senate leader Phil Berger’s chief of staff, and Susan Vick, a lobbyist for Duke Energy, swab the insides of their cheeks to collect DNA sample for the bone marrow registry. Blaine helped organize Wednesday’s registry event. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

In June, Kevin LeConte was feeling run down and had a cut that wouldn’t heal. So he went to the doctor.

“We were down here lobbying, and he called and said, ‘I need to go to the hospital,’” recalled Ardis Watkins, a fellow SEANC lobbyist. “He had been in just two days before and his counts at that point were critical.”

“When he asked the oncologist if he could have a day or two before he went to UNC,” Watkins said, “the answer was absolutely not, the ambulance was coming.”

That’s why Watkins organized a bone marrow transplant registry day at the General Assembly building Wednesday, where more than 200 people submitted swabs to be part of a nationwide database of people willing to donate bone marrow or stem cells.

Too few

LeConte is the second high-profile figure in the Triangle who is now looking for a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukemia. Orange and Chatham county Superior Court Judge Carl Fox is also looking for bone marrow after being diagnosed with another form of blood cell cancer in April.

And it only takes a swab in the mouth to become part of the registry, said Crystal Navarro, a donor organizer from Delete Blood Cancer.

“The swab goes onto a registry, and the person’s information will sit on the registry,” Navarro explained. “If they are found as a match for someone, then what will happen is we’ll contact them and they may be asked to donate either stem cells or bone marrow if there’s a match.”

Bone marrow is used to treat blood cancers such as lymphoma, leukemia and myeloma, along with other blood disorders such as aplastic anemia and sickle cell anemia. The blood-forming cells in bone marrow replace a patient’s unhealthy marrow cells with healthy ones.

Crystal Navarro pulls out a sample collection kit from her “swab bag” at Wednesday’s bone marrow registry event at the legislative building in Raleigh. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

A complication for Fox, who is black, is that there are currently too few blacks on the registry. So a number of black lawmakers were rubbing the inside of their cheeks with swabs to give a sample.

“We continually strive to increase the size and diversity of the Be The Match Registry to improve all patients’ chance for a cure,” Alyse Brunella, a press representative for the national registry, wrote in an email.

According to Delete Blood Cancer, about 14,000 people need the donations annually, but only about half can get one, in part because the matching criteria are stringent and there’s often not a match to be found.

Delete Blood Cancer and other organizations recruit and collect donations to be included in the Be The Match Registry.

Came together quickly

Watkins said the event came together quickly once she and her colleagues learned of LeConte’s need for bone marrow. Legislative leaders loaned their support to the effort.

She said House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Eden) were at the 9 a.m. kickoff inside the legislative building on East Jones Street.

“That was one of the most inspiring sights I’ve seen around here; everybody was just so invested in it,” Watkins said.

Easy process

Donors must be between the ages of 18 and 55 and in generally good health. Cancer survivors and people with chronic diseases such as diabetes or chronic infections such as HIV or hepatitis are not allowed to donate.

When a person signs up, DNA from cells taken during a cheek swab are analyzed for HLA antigens on the cell, markers known as a person’s “genetic identity.” Eight different markers on the cell are recorded.

Sen. Joel Ford (R-Charlotte) fills out the paperwork for his donor swab. Organizers said blacks and other minority donors are desperately needed for the national registry. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Then if a patient needs donor marrow, the registry aims to match at least seven of the eight markers.

“A sibling who is an eligible donor and a full HLA match is the preferred option in most cases,” Brunella wrote. “However, 70 percent of patients will not have a family donor match and can turn to the Be The Match Registry to search for an unrelated donor or cord blood unit.”

If a donor is matched, the procedure for taking the bone marrow is a simple outpatient procedure, Navarro said.

“If you put your hand on your hip, where your thumb rests [is] where we’ll extract it from your hip with a syringe,” she said.

Most people end up with a sore hip for a few weeks.

“It varies per person, but you do recover, and you’ve saved someone’s life,” Navarro said.

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