Saving a kid's life

Saving Luther Ellett's life


By Joe Rojas-Burke of The Oregonian staff

Sixteen-year-old Luther "Woody" Ellett has reached a crucial moment in his two-year struggle with leukemia.

Chemotherapy drugs have temporarily knocked down the cancerous cells in his blood, but doctors say Woody urgently needs a bone marrow transplant -- before the malignant cells have a chance to spring out of remission, as they have once before.

Being African American, however, means that Woody faces serious uncertainty in his search for a suitable marrow donor, far more than if he were of European ancestry. As it stands, about two-thirds of African Americans awaiting bone marrow transplantation never find a registered donor who matches their tissue type, compared with a success rate of 50 percent to 60 percent for white Americans of Northern European ancestry.

Woody's struggle is galvanizing Portland's African American community in a campaign to improve the odds. On Wednesday, Portland Trail Blazer Brian Grant kicked off a big publicity campaign encouraging potential bone marrow donors to register with Marrow Donor Services, run by the American Red Cross in Portland.

"I'm urging all African Americans here in this community and neighboring communities to come out and be a part of this," Grant said.

"It's not only for African Americans," he hastened to add. "We're asking anyone who is not on the national registry to come out and (register to) donate. You never know, the donation you make could save someone's life."

Grant decided to get involved after meeting Woody earlier this year while the young man was undergoing treatment at Oregon Health Sciences University.

"We met, we sat together, and we talked," Grant said. "That right there prompted me to take it further. I sat down with my people and said, 'What more can we do?' "

Experts say the transplant gap between blacks and whites is partly because people of different ethnic backgrounds aren't likely to have matching tissue types -- and African Americans and other minorities are sparsely represented on donor registries. Although African Americans account for close to 13 percent of the population, they represent less than 8 percent of donors listed with National Marrow Donor Program.

"There is a tremendous need for African Americans to be part of the Marrow Donor Program," said Drew Ross, manager of marrow donor services for Red Cross in the Northwest.

A lesser-known barrier is the extreme diversity of tissue types among people with African ancestry, said Dr. Ted Moore, director of pediatric stem cell and bone marrow transplantation at Doernbecher Children's Hospital. This diversity means that many African Americans have an unusually rare combination of the genes, called HLA genes, that determine tissue type.

These genes work sort of like a six-digit combination lock: To be a compatible donor, you need to have at least six versions of the genes in common with the recipient. The fewer of these genes that match, the greater the chance that the recipient's immune system will attack the donor cells.

"The more people we can choose from, the closer we can get to an exact match," Moore said.

Chemotherapy and now the waiting for a donor hasn't been easy for Woody or his family. "It's been two long years of this," said his mother, Denise Sayles.

Grant said he sees in Woody reflections of himself at 16, a young man yearning to do great things. "He's got dreams, but leukemia is slowing him down," Grant said.

Once a donor emerges, Moore, the transplant doctor, said that Woody's chances of surviving are high. "The technology is all there, but we can't move one step without people coming forward and volunteering," he said.

Registration involves filling out a questionnaire and giving a 1 to 2 tablespoon sample of blood to test for tissue type. The information goes into a national database, letting registered donors in Portland be matched with patients anywhere in the country.

The donation process is simple, low-risk and mostly painless, Moore said. Doctors use a needle to puncture pin-sized holes in the hip bones to draw marrow cells. Anesthesia keeps the donor comfortable, but soreness for the next few days is typical, Moore said.

But, he said, "all that translates into saving a person's life."

A donor was found: a caucasian woman living in Europe. Woody was admitted to the hospital and he received a bone marrow transplant in December 1999. The transplant was a success, and he has been staying healthy with regular doctor check-ups. If he wasn’t a Heat fan before, he probably is now!



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