The Legacy of Allison Atlas

September 05, 1993

A heart-wrenching odyssey that began in Washington and Baltimore synagogues four years ago ended last week. Allison Atlas died.

You might never have heard of the 24-year-old Bethesda woman and, if you had, probably not for the last couple of years. But the lives of a couple of hundred people, and possibly more, have been prolonged on her behalf.

Ms. Atlas was a vivacious business student at New York University when she contracted leukemia in 1989. Her family mobilized to find a match who could donate bone marrow to cure the young woman. Because the characteristics of bone marrow are inherited, the family searched for a suitable carrier within itself, then branched out to the American Jewish community, then to her ancestral roots in Israel.

Like many quests for a marrow match, this one ended up back where it started: Ms. Atlas ultimately received a transplant from her mother in 1990. That's because the odds of matching the marrow of a family member is one in four; in the general public, it can run to one in a million. And even in successful matches, the patient's survival chances are less than half.

But because of the exhaustive "Friends of Allison" campaign, which the National Marrow Donor Program said "dwarfed" most others, 70,000 people have signed up as potential donors and 200 patients have received marrow transplants as a result. The national computerized donor bank, formed just seven years ago, now includes nearly 1 million names. (For information, call

1-800-MARROW-2). While bone marrow transplants are used to abate 70 illnesses, leukemia is the disease most often benefited from this operation.

Other Baltimore area families have also responded courageously and spread the word about the need for donors. In an unsuccessful fight last year to save Demetria Ebony Campbell, a college student from Baltimore, her parents led a campaign to correct the scarcity of black registrants. It attracted hundreds of friends, strangers and city leaders. And two years ago in Carroll County, Hampstead rallied around the Rev. Wilbert H. Benz Jr. in massive donor search before he received a transplant from a daughter and later died.

Ms. Campbell, Mr. Benz and Ms. Atlas all lost to leukemia, but not before the campaigns to prolong their lives furthered efforts to prolong others'. Increased participation in the donor bank would be the most precious gift they could now receive.

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