Leukemia patient inspires drive to increase bone-marrow donors

July 24, 1996|By Diane E. Otts | Diane E. Otts,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was an after-church coffee hour with a twist, as members and friends of St. Matthew's Greek Orthodox Church in west Columbia donated blood samples in an effort inspired by a congregant who is considering a bone-marrow transplant.

Sunday's event, which took place after the congregation's regular service at Slayton House in the Village of Wilde Lake, will help build the list of donors for the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) Registry, a computerized registry of more than 2.25 million donors.

The blood samples are typed, and the volunteer's tissue type is added to the NMDP's main computer and searched on behalf of patients who need marrow transplants.

"The key is to get people aware of the program," says Zachary Pappadeas, a lawyer with leukemia. Pappadeas is trying to raise awareness about the marrow donor program while he decides whether to have a transplant.

Pappadeas, who lives with his wife, Mary Kay, and their two young children near the Village of Hickory Ridge, has chronic myelogenous leukemia.

The blood disease causes his body to produce too many white blood cells. As a result, red blood cells are choked out, making it difficult for oxygen to be transported to his heart.

There are several treatments, but only a bone-marrow transplant can provide a cure. And Pappadeas, 42, is considered too old to be a good candidate for a transplant.

The procedure requires that the patient, before the transplant, receive intensive chemotherapy or radiation treatments, or both, in an effort to wipe out the disease.

These treatments also destroy the immune system, leaving the patient vulnerable to infection after the transplant.

Numerous other complications can arise, including rejection of the donated marrow.

"Transplants are more ideal for patients under 30," says Pappadeas.

Pappadeas' doctors have estimated that he would have a 60 percent to 70 percent chance of surviving the first critical year after a transplant.

A 43-year-old donor has been identified for Pappadeas in Germany. While he is deciding whether to proceed with the transplant, he is undergoing interferon therapy. Interferon therapy is believed to slow the progress of the disease.

In the meantime, Pappadeas and his friends are helping to build up the Minneapolis-based NMDP registry. The registry was established in 1987 and has facilitated more than 4,000 bone-marrow transplants.

Marrow types are inherited, much like skin, hair and eye color. The best chance for a match is between people of the same heritage.

For that reason, the NMDP is working to diversify the registry, which has a majority of Caucasian donors.

"We are desperate for volunteers from African-American, Asian Pacific Island, Latino and American Indian backgrounds," says Joy Demus of the National Institutes of Health Marrow Donor Center in Rockville.

She said 75 percent of patients find a match but that percentage probably would go up if the registry were more ethnically and racially diverse.

At Sunday's event, several St. Matthew's parishioners were disappointed that their health histories disqualified them from being donors. Marrow donors must be between 18 and 60 and in very good health.

Ann Hudak of Columbia, one of those able to donate, said of the test, "There was nothing to it."

The drive also drew donors from outside the congregation. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, a Columbia resident, said, "This is a wonderful opportunity to possibly do something for somebody else. I can't imagine how anyone could miss such an opportunity."

For Pappadeas, the battle against leukemia has offered an unique opportunity for personal reflection.

"Friends have told me that getting a serious illness is like a gift, because it teaches you what is important in life," says Pappadeas.

For more information about the National Marrow Donor Program, call the National Institutes of Health Marrow Donor Center at (301) 496-0572, the Johns Hopkins Hemapheresis Center at 955-6347 or the American Red Cross at 764-7000.

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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