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A swab today could give her life tomorrow

Sommers (click for larger version)
October 23, 2013 - A simple swab of the inside of your cheeks could save Donna Sommers' life.

That's how a person can find out if they're a genetic match for the 59-year-old Oxford resident who's is in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant.

Back in May, Sommers, a member of North Oakland Ladies Auxiliary No. 334 Veterans of Foreign Wars, was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS) with Refractory Anemia with Excess Blasts (RAEBS).

"I was totally stunned," she said. "It came out of nowhere."

Sommers began experiencing symptoms in April. For instance, she'd feel as if she was going to pass out while simply walking from her living room to her bedroom. There was also a "real gray color" to her face.

MDS is a group of diseases that affect bone marrow and blood.

In MDS, stem cells in the bone marrow malfunction instead of developing normally into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

These defective stem cells produce too many defective blood cells and too few normal, functioning blood cells, according to www.marrowforums.org.

These defective cells don't grow properly or live as long as normal blood cells. Defective cells can crowd out healthy cells in the bone marrow and leave the patient with too few mature cells in the blood, according to www.marrowforums.org.

That's why most MDS patients develop anemia, low numbers of red blood cells.

Red blood cells travel through the body constantly, delivering oxygen and removing waste in the form of carbon dioxide. Without them performing these essential functions, the body slowly dies.

A low red blood cell count can produce symptoms such as tiredness, feeling less alert or having trouble concentrating, pale skin, trouble breathing, rapid heartbeat and chest pain, according to the Patient Education Institute.

This is what's happening to Sommers, whose main problem is low red blood cell counts. "I have good days and I have bad days," Sommers said. "When the (red blood cells) start getting low, those are not such good days."

As a result of the disease, Sommers has been receiving weekly blood transfusions since August. "I go every Monday," she said.

But the blood transfusions are only a stopgap measure; they're not a permanent solution. Unfortunately, the clock is ticking on Sommers' life.

"They told me my bone marrow will probably only stand up to this for two years," she said. "I'm running out of time."

Sommers' only shot at a potential cure is to find a bone marrow donor who's a close genetic match. Her sister, who's her only living, full-blood relative, was tested, but she's not a match.

Seventy percent of patients cannot find a matching donor within their family and depend on the national registry to find an unrelated bone marrow donor.

It's called Be The Match Registry and it's operated by the National Marrow Donor Program in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Doctors search the national registry trying to find matches for their patients.

Bone marrow donors must be between the ages of 18 and 60, meet medical eligibility guidelines and be willing to donate to any patient in need.

The registry focuses on finding potential donors between the ages of 18 and 44 because research shows younger donors lead to more successful transplants, according to NMDP. That's why doctors request donors in the 18-44 age group more than 90 percent of the time.

Donors between the ages of 45 and 60 are welcome, too, as long as they meet the health guidelines and are willing to donate to any patient in need, according to NMDP.

Registering is easy and simple.

Folks can do it by filling out an information/consent form and swabbing the inside of their cheeks with a cotton swab to collect cells for tissue typing. "It's a painless test for them," Sommers said.

Approximately 138 folks showed up on Sommers' behalf at the Overtyme Grill & Taproom in Waterford Oct. 19 to register as bone marrow donors.

"It was wonderful," she said. "It was just overwhelming."

Sommers is hoping one of these potential donors will be a genetic match for her.

"I'd like to get back to where I was before, which was a full-functioning, contributing adult in society," she said.

Folks who attended the Waterford event also donated more than $700 to Delete Blood Cancer DKMS, a nonprofit organization that registers potential donors to enable the bone marrow and stem cell transplants needed by patients fighting blood cancer and other diseases.

"I didn't know people could be so generous," Sommers said.

Those interested in learning more about the donation process or signing up can visit either the national registry's website www.bethematch.org or Delete Blood Cancer's website www.deletebloodcancer.org

Sommers is encouraging people to join the registry, regardless of whether it results in a match for her. "If they can't help me, they could help somebody else in the same position I'm in," she said.

Sommers' family is the driving force behind her fight to live. "They are my Number One reason I want to be around," she said.

She's got a husband of 32 years named Dennis, who's a veteran of the Vietnam War.

She has two children – James, 31, a reserve officer with the Oxford Village Police Department who's married to Anna, and Jennifer, 28.

Sommers also has two grandsons, Zane, 4, and Wyatt, 1˝. A third grandchild is due in November. "It's another boy," she said.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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