By Lee Chin Wee (14A01B)
Did you know that every day, more than 22,000 African children die of acute malnutrition? Or that there are over 450 patients on the National Kidney Waiting List here in Singapore? Or that for a patient diagnosed with leukemia or lymphoma, the odds of finding a match from the existing registry of volunteer bone marrow donors is 1 in 20,000? Chances are, you do – every day, we find ourselves bombarded by messages from the latest social advocacy campaign, fighting to grab our attention. We memorize these facts all the time, so they can be regurgitated in the middle of a GP Exam. We walk past posters bearing these sobering statistics without so much as batting an eyelid.
The insidious thing about numbers and statistics, however, is that they make it far too easy for us to detach ourselves from the very real suffering experienced by very real people. Someone who is represented as a single digit on the bone marrow transplant waiting list could well be a doting dad, a loving daughter or an adorable younger brother. At the “Hope for Tomarrow” bone marrow donation drive held in RI, I met Jane Prior, the President of the Bone Marrow Donation Programme. She graciously granted me an interview which still lingers in my mind as I write this article.
She motioned for me to take a seat. We were in the Stamford Training Room, amidst the steady stream of Rafflesians who wished to add their names to the bone marrow donor registry. “I do have a personal stake in this programme,” she shares. “My eldest son, he was 11 at that time, was a beneficiary of the Bone Marrow Donation Programme. Thanks to the BMDP, he’s grown to become a young man, 26 years of age.” It served as a powerful reminder that behind every patient in need of medical aid, be it a bone marrow transplant, an organ donation or a blood transfusion, lies a unique set of hopes and aspirations not unlike my own – to attend a good college, to get a well-paying job, and to take care of their parents in their old age.
Jane smiled gently, as if she could tell what I was thinking. “A girl, (a) Hwa Chong student, was diagnosed with leukemia in the lead up to her A levels. She tried to get a bone marrow transplant from her sister, but she unfortunately passed away because it was not a good match. She was accepted to a prestigious university in the UK, but didn’t live long enough to start studying there.” While there may be a 1 in 4 chance of finding a matching donor within a patient’s immediate family, it simply means that asking a close family member to donate bone marrow still has a 3 in 4 chance of being unsuccessful. To us, these are merely numbers and statistics. To patients with severe blood disorders, this is the difference between life and death.
Geng Zhaochong (13A03A), one of the student volunteers who worked with the BMDP to bring the registration drive here to RI, would like to do all she can to reduce these unenviable odds. “We had 300 Rafflesians turn up to register on Thursday alone, and we hope we can get around 200 to 300 more names today.” Considering that barely 12 people added their names to the bone marrow donor registry at the BMDP’s last registration drive at a local tertiary institution, the fact that more than 500 Rafflesians voluntarily pledged to donate their blood marrow if it were needed was incredibly heartening. While their reasons for doing so often differed, it did not take long for me to identify a common, resonant message underlying all their personal convictions. Zaky Askari, a Year 5 student, reasoned, “I decided to go along with my friends – it’s all about doing what you can for others if you are in the position to do so. If you won’t do it, then who will?” It was a sentiment shared by his batchmate, Marc Leong, who said that he “just wanted to prevent unnecessary deaths, actually. If you think about it, if the entire world was on that registry, practically no one would die from leukemia and I’m just doing my part by taking a step closer to that ideal, I guess.”
That quote got me thinking. Truth be told, donating blood marrow sounds far more intrusive and painful than it actually is. A quick Google search would reveal that on the off-chance of you actually being a suitable match for someone, the procedure is conducted under general anaesthesia, with the bone marrow itself extracted from the pelvic bone. It is an outpatient treatment which lasts only a few hours, with literally no significant medical risk. Why then was there such a dearth of willing donors on the bone marrow donor registry?
In Zhaochong’s opinion, the lack of knowledge and the prevalence of certain widespread myths about bone marrow harvesting are to blame. “We’ve received a few negative responses from parents – who understandably can be quite protective of their children. The problem is that many mistakenly believe that harvesting bone marrow involves ‘drilling into your bone’, or could ‘paralyze you from the waist down’.” Jane Prior concurs, noting that there are only around 55,000 individuals currently on the bone marrow registry. “Singapore is has become Westernized in many ways, but socially and culturally, we are still a very Asian nation. The BMDP tries it best to educate the public, and we hope that instead of you being discouraged by your friends and family from registering, your friends will buy you a beer after you donate your blood marrow!”
Despite the slim chance that a registered donor will ever surface as a match for a patient, there exists an uplifting story of success far closer to home than one would expect. Based on what I could glean from my interview with Mrs. Prior and Deputy Principal Mr. Leong’s speech during morning assembly, a former Rafflesian who signed up to be a donor while she was still in Junior College emerged as a match for a patient a few years later. As Jane revealed, “The patient, whose life she did save, is now a father with two very grown up daughters while (the ex-RJ student) is married and a mother of three. Their families are very close now; linked by that amazing bond. The reality is that something that took very little of her time allowed a father to see his daughters grow up.” Here’s the thing: if we assume that adding our name to the bone marrow donor registry is pointless because of the statistical improbability of being identified as a possible match, then we give in to the seemingly insurmountable odds and do nothing about it. But if we do our part just by consenting to a painless cheek swab, then the odds a leukemia patient faces in trying to find a donor need not be 1-in-20,000.
What about individuals who may be fraught with anxiety at the thought of having to commit as a bone marrow donor? “If they come up as a match, and they are probably afraid, I would ask them to have the courage to wear the patient’s shoes and walk a mile.” Jane paused for a moment, choosing her next few words with deliberate precision. “Because it’s a very stark reality. And honestly, the maximum you have is five days of inconvenience or sitting at home doing nothing – and a life could be saved. Otherwise, it’s definitely gone.”
For individuals afflicted with severe blood disorders, their lives need not depend on the lottery of chance. At the end of the day, this isn’t about being noble, or living up to a set of arbitrary and predetermined ‘Rafflesian ethos’. It is about volunteering to take the first step in the journey to create a more compassionate Singaporean society.
It is about being the change which you wish to see in the world.
Hope for Tomarrow is a blood marrow donation drive organized by students from RI’s Humanities Programme, in conjunction with the Bone Marrow Donation Programme (BMDP). You can find out more about the BMDP and the bone marrow donation registry on its website, www.bmdp.org. If you wish to sign up as a donor, click here to receive a free test kit, or here to pledge some money to this non-profit organization.