Vietnamese-American Woman Campaigns For Bone Marrow The numbers of ethnic minorities signed up to be bone marrow donors is so low one Vietnamese-American woman who needs a bone marrow transplant is taking matters into her own hands. She is traveling from Houston to Carthage, Mo., for the annual Marion Days event, which brings together Vietnamese Catholics from all over the country.
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Vietnamese-American Woman Campaigns For Bone Marrow

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Vietnamese-American Woman Campaigns For Bone Marrow

Vietnamese-American Woman Campaigns For Bone Marrow

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There's a shortage of minorities signed up as bone marrow donors. We're going to hear the story now of one woman. She's a Vietnamese-American, and she is desperately trying to find a donor.

Missy Shelton of member station KSMU reports.

MISSY SHELTON: As 50,000 Vietnamese Catholics pray and worship during a religious celebration in Carthage, Missouri, Anh Reiss and her supporters are there, praying for a miracle of their own.

Dr. ANH REISS: Miracles happen every day, and my family and friends believe that it can happen for us.

SHELTON: Team Anh, as her support group is called, has set up chairs and tables under a tent, with signs encouraging people to join the National Marrow and Blood Donor Registry. Reiss has a kind of blood cancer called myelodysplastic syndrome, where her blood cells do not mature into healthy red and white cells and platelets. One key treatment involves a stem cell transplant. And for that, there has to be a donor match. Reiss is out to find one.

Even though donor drives initiated by patients and their families rarely result in a match for that patient, Reiss hopes that having so many people of Vietnamese ancestry in one place will improve her chances, and she has a broader goal in mind.

Dr. REISS: If we don't find a match for me, the fact that we register people, we surely are going to find a match for someone. And if we save one other person's life, then it will have been, you know, worthwhile.

SHELTON: Potential donors trickle into the tent. They fill out paperwork and swab the inside of their cheeks. This will help determine if they're a good match for a patient needing a blood or marrow transplant. Reiss says the donor drives are therapeutic for her and her family, giving them a chance to do something positive in light of her diagnosis. Reiss' brother, John Nguyen(ph), helped organize the donor drive in Carthage.

Mr. JOHN NGUYEN: Our main goal today is just to register people to become bone marrow donors. So we have fliers, we have prayer cards and hopefully, they come in and register.

SHELTON: I'm standing outside the Team Ahn tent. And it's been open for a little bit more than an hour now. And already more than 25 people have come into the tent, filled out the forms, done the swabs, and become a part of the Marrow Donor Registry.

Mr. TOMMY TRAN(ph): They were talking about like, how to like, save a life and stuff. We just decided to help out. I feel like I did something important.

SHELTON: That's Tommy Tran. He and a friend joined the Be The Match Registry. Dr. Jeffrey Chell, CEO of the National Marrow Donor Program, explains why ethnicity matters when matching a donor and patient.

Dr. JEFFREY CHELL (CEO, National Marrow Donor Program): We're looking to match a specific part of Chromosome 6. There are genes expressed on the chromosome that are important in our immune system, and we want the immune system of the donor and the recipient to match as precisely as possible. Since our immune systems develop over many, many, many generations, you are more likely to find a match with someone who shares a common ancestry.

SHELTON: The goal is to have one million donors in each ethnic group. Only Caucasians are above the one-million mark. There are slightly more than half a million each of African-Americans and Asians on the registry. Hispanics and Latinos are closer, with almost 700,000 donors.

One challenge facing recruiters is misconceptions among potential donors. Tatch Nguyen(ph) recruits donors through a group called Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches.

Mr. TATCH NGUYEN (Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches): With the Asian community, people always think that, you know, giving bone marrow is giving part of their life, giving part of their body and they will suffer from doing it. But it's totally untrue.

SHELTON: That's why donor drives like the one today in Carthage, Missouri, are so critical. It's a chance for patients and their families to educate people face to face, even if it doesn't result in the match they are hoping to find.

For NPR News, I'm Missy Shelton.

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