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Published in CenterView on May 29, 2012
Connie Nichols, left, apheresis nurse, and Jessica Howard, bone-marrow donor
Connie Nichols, left, apheresis nurse, and Jessica Howard, bone-marrow donor

Bone marrow registry seeks perfect match for those with life-threatening conditions

By Patrice Sawyer Guilfoyle

To discover how 22-year-old Jessica Howard got to the bone marrow donor unit this month to give stem cells, rewind four years.Howard visited a blood drive location to gather information and to give blood. Mattie Coburn, a bone marrow donor recruiter at UMMC, was next door recruiting donors. Coburn convinced Howard to sign up for the national registry that day.

That was in 2008. In March 2012, Howard answered an unexpected phone call from the Mississippi Marrow Donor Program.

“They called to say I was the perfect match for someone,” Howard said. “It surprised me, after four years. I didn’t even remember registering for the program, but I was happy to be able to donate.”

Renee Howard had always stressed to her daughter the importance of donation, but she assumed that she would be the first to get the call.

“I was excited because it’s like I’m donating through her,” Renee said. “I just don’t recruit donors. I believe in it.”

UMMC is the only bone marrow transplant program in Mississippi, and donor recruiters like Tazia Jackson travel around the state encouraging potential donors through outreach efforts. In conversations, she stresses the importance of signing up for the registry.

“Our purpose is to inform potential donors that every day, thousands of patients with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia need a marrow or umbilical cord transplant, but they don’t have a donor within their family to match them,” she said. “They depend on the Be the Match registry to give them a hope for a cure.”

Jackson’s next donor drive is Saturday, June 2, at the Prentiss Public Library. Donors will join the registry by completing a consent form with contact information, health history and a signature. Those who qualify will give a swab of their cheek cells so that tissue type can be determined.

“It’s not a guarantee you’ll match someone, but by taking the first step you are giving the patients hope,” Jackson said. “You can be listed on the registry as young as 18, and you will remain on the registry until you are 60 years of age.”

Some donors have matched with a patient quickly, while others have gone as long as 20 years before being contacted by the national registry. Donating stem cells is in line with Howard’s dream of becoming a nurse, giving back to help others.

“You can save a life without harming yourself,” she said. “I just feel like it’s helping another person.”