Donor program organizes drive at Yale-New Haven

When Susan Murphy of Madison, Conn., was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, a rapidly-spreading cancer, in early 2002, she had to look across the country for a badly-needed bone marrow transplant. Her hospital was still Yale-New Haven, but the bone marrow came from Robert Pallfy, a firefighter from outside Chicago.

More than three years later, Murphy said she can ride her horses and be with her now 9-year-old son, thanks to the help of one man she had never before met. Last Friday, she was back at Yale-New Haven Hospital helping to recruit new volunteers to the National Marrow Donor Program Registry.

The event, held at both YNHH and the Buckland Hills Mall in Manchester, Conn., drew 438 new potential donors to the program, said Susan Faraone, allogeneic stem cell transplant coordinator at YNHH.

This year marks the second time the hospital and WFSB Channel 3 have sponsored a marrow drive. Last year’s drive exceeded expectations with 398 new donors when coordinators were only hoping for 100, Channel 3 marketing director Robert Montesi said.

But organizers said the drive’s purpose involved more than registering as many donors as possible.

“This is very much about bringing minorities into the registry,” said Arthur Lemay, executive director of oncology services at Yale-New Haven. “There’s a small chance of minorities finding a match.”

Few Yale students registered at Friday’s drive, but organizers said they were not surprised. Most publicity for the drive came from Channel 3, not from the University, Lemay said.

“The difficulty is getting the word to them,” Lemay said.

Yale-New Haven is the only hospital in Connecticut to offer marrow transplants, conducting about 45 of the procedures each year. Faraone said the actual transplant is similar to a blood transfusion — the donated cells are administered through an IV the same day they are harvested from the donor. The cells travel to the bone marrow, where they begin to reconstitute the patient’s immune system. Although recovery takes only 10-14 days, Faraone said it takes over a year to achieve a mature immune system.

Though the NMDP said about a third of transplants are given to children, YNHH is only able to conduct the procedure on adults. Even so, some of the new potential donors at the Yale-New Haven site were there to help Hailey Scofield, a 9-year-old girl diagnosed with chronic myleogenous leukemia, by having their blood tested to see if their bone marrow would be a match for Scofield’s.

Bone marrow transplants are used to help save the lives of patients whose immune systems are compromised, most often due to chemotherapy or other cancer treatments. The most successful transplants utilize bone marrow that is most similar to the patient’s tissue type. Though tissue types are inherited, the National Marrow Donor Program said only 30 percent of patients find a suitable match with relatives. Many of the reamaining 70 percent turn to the NMDP registry to find a match.

In a harvesting procedure that Yale-New Haven is currently not equipped to perform, doctors perform a surgical procedure to remove bone marrow from the back of the pelvic bone. In another procedure, stem cells can be taken from the blood after a drug, filgrastim, makes the body produce enough stem cells so harvesting them becomes possible. Stem cells used in bone marrow transplants can become white blood cells, part of the body’s immune system.

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