Effort at Farmers Market turns up what could be lifesaving marrow donor

Jamee Simons, right, of Grand Junction and Robert Roemer of Clifton are both cancer survivors.

Jamee Simons, left, of Grand Junction and Robert Roemer of Clifton are both cancer survivors.



Abnormal white blood cells born in bone marrow are the source of the three main types of blood cancer: leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

■ Leukemia is a type of cancer found in blood and bone marrow. It is caused by the rapid production of abnormal white blood cells. The high number of abnormal white blood cells are unable to fight infection and impair the ability of bone marrow to produce red blood cells and platelets.

■ Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system by removing excess fluids from the body and by producing immune cells known as lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that fights infection. Abnormal lymphocytes become lymphoma cells, which multiply and collect in the lymph nodes and other tissues. Over time, the cancerous cells impair the immune system.

■ Myeloma is a type of blood cancer that specifically targets plasma cells. Plasma cells are white blood cells that produce disease- and infection-fighting antibodies in the body. Myeloma cells prevent the normal production of antibodies, leaving the body’s immune system weakened and susceptible to infection.

— Source: American Society of Hematology

The power to chase away cancer was discovered in the jowls of a stranger who visited the Downtown Farmers Market on June 27.

During a Be The Match marrow drive organized by a Grand Junction woman last summer, the unknown Samaritan — aged 18 to 44 — swiped a swab along the inside of his or her cheek and donated the DNA to a national registry.

The age range of potential donors is restricted to 44 and younger because transplants from older donors have a reduced chance of success, Be The Match said.

Earlier this month, members of the local blood cancer support group who took part in the drive were notified one of the DNA donors was a match, a potential source of marrow or stem cells that could save the life of a person battling cancer.

Many of the nearly 80 people who swabbed their cheeks in June may never be identified as a match, but at least one was pinpointed as the person who could save the life of a particular blood cancer patient.

“It was amazing because even though it was terribly hot, there were lots of people there,” said Mary Ellen Ireland, a board certified clinical chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital. “It was just so meaningful for everyone.” 

According to Be The Match, manager of the largest marrow registry in the world, there is a one-in-540 chance that the unidentified person who swabbed their cheek at the farmers market will actually donate marrow or stem cells.

Joining Be The Match Registry means the swabees agreed to respond quickly when contacted as a potential match and donate, but they could change their mind. Donating is always voluntary.

Despite the odds, every person who joins the registry gives hope to new patients, Be The Match said.

Family members of about 70 percent of blood cancer patients do not have the correct DNA that allows them to donate marrow or stem cells to a loved one.

Bob Roemer was one of those. His five-year journey started with a blood cancer diagnosis followed by a search of the registry for an unrelated donor. Once a match was found, Roemer underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatment and finally a stem cell transplant that succeeded.

He doesn’t recall how he felt when a match was found. The rigorous treatment for the disease made it difficult for him to remember what happened.

But Roemer beat the odds. Despite a complication from the transplant known as graft-versus-host disease and a heavy regimen of pills, today he enjoys attending bluegrass concerts and spending time with his granddaughter.

For people like Roemer, the kindness of strangers is their best hope, said Verda, the mononymous Grand Junction woman who organized the June drive where the match was found.

“I just have one name,” she said. “Like Cher.”

A rock star to many survivors and patients who attend the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Support Group at St. Mary’s Hospital, Verda regularly attends the second Thursday of each month. The meetings start at 4 p.m. at St. Mary’s Advanced Medicine Pavilion, 750 Wellington Ave.

The monthly get-togethers are a place for patients and survivors to “share their fears, joys, questions, and concerns in a safe, confidential environment with other patients and their families who are affected by blood cancers,” St. Mary’s said.

“They supported me so I support them,” Verda said.

Verda doesn’t know whether she might have been a match for her daughter, Lisa Ann Ondo, who died June 8, 2011.

“She was never in a place where ... she would benefit from a donor. It just didn’t work out in her case,” Verda said.

It was to honor Ondo’s memory that Verda helped coordinate the June drive.

As for the match, “We don’t know if it was somebody who specifically came to donate or someone we just snagged out of the crowd,” she said.

Jamee Simons, blood cancer survivor and secretary-treasurer of Enstrom Candies, helped cajole the downtown crowd and persuaded many to volunteer for the swab, Verda said.

“Hopefully we saved a life. There were a lot of different people out there on the walkway and you just wonder which one that we pulled in was the donor,” Simons said.

Ireland said the support group she facilitates was organized in 2010 for the first-ever marrow drive in Grand Junction, which Ondo helped coordinate. The event took place at Enstrom’s and attracted about 150 people. Ondo died about six months later.

It wasn’t until the 2013 drive that a Grand Junction volunteer who registered was identified as a match for a blood cancer patient, Verda said.

Drives are important because they are funded by nonprofits to cover the expense of the swab kits and DNA tests. Those who seek to join the registry apart from a drive must pay the $100 cost of conducting the test, Ireland said.

Another marrow drive is planned for 2014. For information about marrow drives or the LLS Blood Cancer Support Group at St. Mary’s Hospital, call (720) 440-8530.


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