Sunday, February 28, 2010

Good News for Natalie

Hope grows for Pleasant Hill 8-year-old with leukemia

The odds were against them, but friends and family were recently overjoyed to learn that a bone-marrow donor has been found for 8-year-old leukemia patient Natalie Nakatani.

The story of the Pleasant Hill resident's battle with acute leukemia, reported in the Times this month, has inspired thousands of people in the Bay Area and around the world to get their cheeks swabbed for a possible genetic match.

Finding a bone-marrow match is often difficult, and was more challenging in Natalie's case because of her multiracial heritage— she is Japanese and Chinese, with a trace of Vietnamese.

Donor registries contain a small percentage of minority donors, and even fewer multiracial donors. Leukemia patients from minority backgrounds have only a 35 or 40 percent chance of finding a donor, according to Carol Gillespie, executive director of the Asian-American Donor Program.

Natalie's supporters have been working to get as many people registered as possible, spreading the work through media outlets, social-networking sites, and a public service announcement from international movie star Jackie Chan.

Drives at Natalie's elementary school, Gregory Gardens, and her parents' alma mater, UC Berkeley, have attracted hundreds of would-be donors. The Asian-American Donor program has been receiving about 100 requests a day for home-testing kits, and has mailed out 500 "drive-in-a-box" kits to communities across the country wanting to stage drives for Natalie.

As is normal in these situations, Natalie's family has not been told the identity of the donor, or where the donor was found. They do know that the donor is a nine out of 10 match for their daughter, and is Asian.

Before the transplant, the donor will take medication to make the body produce more blood stem cells, and a doctor will remove these cells via a needle inserted into the hipbone.

Natalie will undergo another round of chemotherapy before the procedure. She remains ill, and her transplant does not guarantee recovery.

"It's a tough road, but it's what gives patients the chance to have their new lives," said family friend Maritza Kim of the operation.

For now, hopes are high.

"We are so happy a match has been found," Natalie's parents wrote in a blog post. "What a special and wonderful gift this person has given our family."

Natalie's parents also hope that newly registered donors who were not a match for their daughter will go on to help other leukemia patients.

"For those of you who are still doing drives and getting people registered, please don't stop," they wrote. "We really want the registry to grow with more minorities."

Kim, who has been working intensely with the Save Natalie campaign, plans to continue advocating on behalf of child cancer patients.

"I would love to see a day come when parents hear their child needs a bone-marrow transplant, and they already have a donor," she said. "I never want to see another family be told, 'We have a lifesaving procedure for your kid, now go find a match.'"



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