Give the Gift of Life This Holiday

A series of random events happened yesterday that reminded me of all of the wonderful people that I worked with at Banner Health, the amazing patients/people that I met during my three years there, and the many wonderful causes that we helped to support.

After receiving a few texts and emails, I found myself wandering down memory lane. I re-watched a video of my CEO’s four-year-old daughter dancing on stage with one of our ER physicians (who was imitating her) from the hospital’s fifth birthday celebration. I got to see a photo of my director’s newborn twins! Another director messaged me on Facebook asking me about the first bone marrow drive we held in 2010 — the hospital is hosting a second drive tomorrow. And then, a friend from Buffalo asked if I would be interested in helping to preserve memories and support parents that have a newborn die at the hospital. What an honor to even be asked.

It is funny how the world works sometimes, isn’t it? I feel like someone up there really wanted to remind me that there are kind people in the world.

This all couldn’t have come at a better time. I had planned to write this blog post for some time now — I just couldn’t piece the words together.

See that photo in the post up there? The one that says HOPE. I took that photo in 2010 of a young man named Johnny Garcia. He was 21 years old, sweet as honey, and ever so shy. I remember taking the elevator up to the fifth floor of the hospital and walking toward the family lounge/room to meet him. I’d ask him questions, and he’d respond in three-word sentences, or less. Sometimes it was just ‘yes’, or ‘no’. This went on for about three minutes, when I ran out of questions to ask him because our conversation was so brief. So, I asked him if I could take his photo.

He shrugged in an I-wish-I-could-say-no kind of way, but knew it had to happen. We needed to tell his story to encourage community members to attend the bone marrow drive. We needed to find him a match.

We tried a few of the traditional shots, photographing him from the waist up as he smiled. But as I was shooting, I could tell that this was painful for him. This wasn’t the Johnny that he knew. His hair was gone, he was weak. This wasn’t my style, either. I didn’t want to take that traditional photo that communicates “I have cancer.” Because that thought consumes people. So I took a step back and tried something new.

Humor me for a moment and grab that HOPE sign. Hold it up in front of you.

He did as I asked and I took the photo. We were in a low lit room with tan walls and I had to use my flash due to the lack of light. The lighting conditions were not ideal, but that didn’t matter. Shooting in this room away from everyone made Johnny most comfortable. And I was perfectly happy with the outcome. This photo quickly became the face of the drive. It conveyed HOPE.

Johnny was battling leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant. He was in his fourth round of chemo, which left him in the hospital for at least three weeks of every month. All of his family members had been tested to see if they were a match for Johnny — but none of them did.

“You’re more likely to find a match in someone who is Hispanic for Johnny. And minorities are very underrepresented in the pool,” said Dr. Anjali Iyengar, a hematologist oncologist.

Patients with these blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma need donors who are a genetic match. That is why donors with “diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds are especially needed.” Adding more people with diverse backgrounds increases the likelihood of patients finding a life-saving match.

According to Be the Match, members of these backgrounds are especially needed:

  • Black or African American
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian, including South Asian
  • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Multiple race

And so, the 5E nurses made it their personal mission to see that we found Johnny a match. We rallied and campaigned hard for the next month and a half. Local media and news reporters covered his story. We got calls from cities two hours away asking about the drive and how they could help. People drove in from all over the Valley. It was unlike anything we ever imagined or expected. But the community fell in love with Johnny and his story. They got behind him, and all of the people fighting the same battle.

We were scheduled to start at 10 a.m. and run until 3 p.m. that Saturday. People arrived early while we were setting up, and the drive continued until we ran out of kits, basically. It was non-stop the entire time. Us volunteers took shifts. We finally devised a system that allowed us to speed the process up and get people through more quickly. People waited in lines that stretched down the entire length of the hospital to get their cheeks swabbed. Parents brought their children and taught them about what it means to be kind, to make a difference in someone’s life.

More than 700 people showed up that day to give hope to the thousands of patients waiting to find their live-saving match. It was the second largest one-day registry event in Arizona history. It was a day that I’ll never forget. Which is why I was so happy to hear that the hospital is hosting its second drive this weekend.

Event Details

  • Who: Be The Match & Banner Estrella Medical Center, in support of finding Ray a match (and so many others waiting for a lifesaving donor!)
  • What: Community Bone Marrow Drive
  • When: Saturday, Dec. 1 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Where: Banner Estrella Medical Center, 9201 W. Thomas Road, Phoenix (Main Lobby area)
  • Details: Facebook

Did you know?

  • Donating bone marrow is not as complicated as it was in the past – about 74 percent of donations can be done without the need for surgery. Most marrow donations can be done right from the blood, and the experience is similar to donating plasma.
  • Signing up to be a bone marrow donor is easy and painless, just a swab inside the mouth. And, if you do it at the bone marrow drive, it is free! (Sometimes if you sign up by mail you are asked to give a donation to cover the cost of the kit/mailing.)
  • Minority donors are greatly needed! Race is a factor in the matching process and there aren’t many African Americans or Native Americans on the registry.
  • A 2010 drive at the hospital yielded 700 new registrants, among whom there were three that were potential matches for a transplant including a three year old little girl and a Hispanic patient who was also struggling to find a match due to his ethnicity. They continue to find an average of one match per month as a result of the drive two years ago.

If you live in Arizona, please consider attending this marrow drive in the Southwest Valley tomorrow, Saturday Dec. 1 to get your cheek swabbed. The idea is that if bone marrow drives are held all over the country, and the world, that we will continue to register more people and grow the pool of donors. This is a gift that will truly keep on giving. If you can’t make it on 12/1 or you don’t live in Arizona, these drives are held all over the country. Find a donor drive near you.

Finally, whether you join the registry or not, I thank you for reading our story and educating yourself on the facts. That in itself goes a long way to help bust the myths that prevent many from becoming donors. If you’d like to learn more, visit marrow.org.

Johnny found a match two days before the 9/18 drive, but didn’t want anyone to know in case it discouraged people from attending. He received his marrow transplant a couple weeks later; however, his cancer relapsed and he passed away on March 17. He is dearly missed, but his legacy lives on.