Boning Up On Saving Lives

Every day, cancer patients die waiting to find a bone marrow match. That’s why Roy Yonashiro of the Hawaii Bone Marrow Donor Registry wants to sign up more donors. ‘It doesn’t hurt,’ he says, ‘to save a life’

Wednesday - March 09, 2005
By Alice Keesing
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It kills Roy Yonashiro that in Hawaii and across America cancer patients needlessly die every day.

As the donor recruitment coordinator at the Hawaii Bone Marrow Donor Registry, it’s Yonashiro’s job — actually, his passion — to find people willing to give the life-giving substance that is usually the last chance for those suffering from diseases such as leukemia.

Yonashiro’s work is the stuff of heartwarming gifts and heartbreaking loss. For every life that is saved with a bone marrow donation, many more are lost because a donor cannot be found.

“Even though we’re at 68,000 registered donors in Hawaii right now, it’s just not enough,” Yonashiro says. “Patients are in dire need of these transplants. Every day across the nation an average of 25 people die simply because a donor is not found.”

But then there are those times when a match is found. When someone gives. Someone receives. And remarkable relationships are forged.

There are people like Kathy Fu. She has personally kept a young Mississippi boy alive by donating for him three times. Fu has been called a hero. She says she just wanted to help.

Fu was one of the 38,000 people who joined the Hawaii registry during the phenomenal drive for little Alana Dung.

“I just wanted to help that little girl,” Fu says.

While she wasn’t a match for Alana, she received a call two years later that she was a perfect match for Tyler Warren, a 7-year-old boy in Mississippi who was battling leukemia.

“I’m a parent, too, so I was just really excited that maybe I could give this boy a second chance,” Fu says. “I was just really concerned for him. He’s such a little guy and he had to endure so much with the chemotherapy and all that.”

Fu underwent the harvesting procedure in September 2001. Three months later, Tyler was still struggling, and Fu agreed to donate again. And then again a third time.

Finally they won the fight.

“He’s back in school now and he’s doing well,” says Fu, who stays in touch with the family via e-mail.

And if Tyler — or anyone else — needs Fu to donate again, she says she’d do it in a heartbeat.

“I just think about what the recipient has to go through,” she says. “What we go through is nothing compared to them.”

What Fu and other donors will quickly tell you is that the donation procedure is not painful. And that’s one of the common misconceptions that Yonashiro is trying to overcome.

“There’s some discomfort, but it’s not painful,” he says. “That’s why I like to say that it doesn’t hurt to save a life.”

There are two ways that doctors can harvest bone marrow. In the first method, the donor is placed under general anesthesia. Doctors make several small incisions in the lower back and use a needle to draw the liquid marrow from the pelvic bone.

“The actual process is very easy,” says Matt Martinson, a Punahou PE teacher who donated to save the life of a 15-year-old boy in California. “My favorite line is that it’s not like they come at you with a rusty spoon. You’re completely unconscious. I remember afterwards feeling like I just fell hard on my okole. Most of what I felt was complications from the anesthesia. That night I was walking around the hospital and I took off about one week, or maybe less from work.”


Doctors also now use a second method to draw stem cells from the blood that can be transplanted. For four or five days before the procedure, donors are injected with a drug that can give them flu-like symptoms. The actual procedure is similar to a blood draw: The donor’s blood is removed through a needle in one arm, filtered, then returned back to the body via a needle in the other arm.

When the life-giving stuff is transplanted into the recipient’s body, the donor cells begin to grow to make healthy red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets necessary to support life.

Fu still remembers the feeling of awe that came over her when she was told that Tyler’s blood type had switched to her own.

The act of giving and receiving has created some very powerful relationships. For Fu, it’s like she has another son.

Martinson also talks of his new, extended family. It’s chicken-skin stuff.

“It’s like I’ve met a brother,” he says of his recipient, Jonathan Baer. “We’re so close. We talk all the time.”

Jonathan, now 19, is fully cured and pursuing his love of music at college — particularly jazz drumming. He says it’s hard to describe how it feels to have a perfect stranger step up to the plate for him like that. It really sunk in the night before his transplant when he was in the hospital and a letter from Martinson arrived with the bone marrow. The letter was anonymous because donors and recipients are unable to know each other’s identities until a year after the procedure, but Jonathan got the heartfelt message.

“I was astounded that someone was so willing to do something like that for me,” he says. “They give kids really bad chances in situations like that — less than one out of two — and I couldn’t put face or name to this person, I just knew that he was willing to give me the chance.”

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