The best gift that 2-year-old Sofia Flores from Pasadena could get this Christmas is a chance to stay alive.
In July, she fell ill and was brought to the emergency room, but later her family found out that it wasn’t just the flu. Flores was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer known as acute myeloid leukemia, which affects only 1 percent of children.
Though five treatments of chemotherapy have kept the cancer in remission, her only chance for a cure is finding a bone-marrow donor with the right DNA match. Family members say she only has two to three months to find a match.
The problem is that, for Flores, matches are limited by her unique ethnic and racial makeup– half Caucasian and half Mexican. Local and international bone-marrow registries have so far turned up nothing, and none of her family members had compatible DNA matches either. Still, the hope is that a donor may eventually be found amongst Los Angeles County’s diverse population.
After the girl’s family searched in Pasadena, her cousin, Courtney Noel and Noel’s fiancé Juan Rendon opened up the front yard of their east Long Beach home on Saturday, Nov. 9 to host a bone-marrow drive in hopes of finding a match for Flores or the many other children desperately searching for a donor to survive.
Noel said the Long Beach community has been supportive of the effort, with strangers, local city officials and business owners all pitching in to promote the drive.
“I just wanted to be able to do something to help contribute, so I asked if we could have a match [drive] down here,” she said. “It’s amazing how many people have come out to help. Everyone is reaching out.”
The family publicized the event during a Long Beach City Council meeting, and 4th District Long Beach Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell also helped put the word out to his constituents. Thousands of email messages were sent out, and fliers were posted at nearby businesses.
Meagan Meylor, a Cal State Long Beach student and local neighbor, said she decided to participate after hearing about it through a co-worker at a local real-estate firm.
“I thought maybe I should just try and donate just in case,” she said. “I think it’s great that all these people in the community are coming together to try and help.”
To participate, each person has to be willing to join a global bone-marrow registry known as Be The Match Registry, which, according to its website, is operated by the National Marrow Donor Program and is considered the “largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world.”
People, between 18 and 44, in general good health and willing to help any patient in need, were required to swab four corners of the inside of their cheeks. Their DNA samples were then placed into an envelope to be sent out to a lab.
Those who participated will be in the registry until their 61st birthday, said Sara Arroyo, Hispanic outreach and recruitment coordinator for Los Angeles-based Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M), which organized the drive in Long Beach.
If a match is found for Flores or any other of the thousands of patients with life-threatening blood cancers, there are two methods for bone-marrow transplants.
The method most commonly performed is a non-surgical procedure known as peripheral blood stem cell donation (PBSC), which involves extracting circulating peripheral blood from the arm and putting it through a machine to take out stem cells.
The other, more invasive, procedure involves an actual bone-marrow donation in which liquid is extracted from a person’s pelvic bone. This method can leave a person sore for a couple of days.
Arroyo said, however, that, in the case of both methods, cells come back to the body in about four to six weeks. “It’s something your body can donate– it replenishes,” she said. “This doesn’t cause any permanent damage, and you get to help save someone’s life.”
Barbara Welsh, Flores’s grandmother, said the goal of the drive is to collect as many samples as possible given the girl’s mixed race, noting that there are less non-white minorities in the registry.
“Ethnic groups are very underrepresented, and that’s why they’re having a harder time finding a match,” she said. “The match could come from anywhere in the world.”
Welsh added that she hopes the event will spread awareness about how people can join not only to help Flores but the thousands of other patients searching for a cure as well.
“People aren’t aware that this happens, and it’s going on,” she said. “There are people out there every day who need a match… It’s worthwhile, and hopefully this will benefit a lot of people.”