by James Delhauer
A core belief at the heart of the labor movement is that we are stronger together than we are apart; that what would be impossible for one to accomplish alone becomes possible through the collective. We have a responsibility to look out for and take care of one another, secure in the knowledge that when it is our time of need, our brothers and sisters in the union will be there for us. Now is such a time when one of our own needs our help. In July of last year, brother Steve Evans, a boom operator with more than thirty years of service within Local 695, was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a rare form of cancer that targets the bone marrow and causes blood cells to become abnormal. This is a call for help to all 695 members and to anyone else who might be reading.
Myelodysplastic Syndrome is a complicated illness to treat, as it works by targeting the sponge-like marrow deposits in the bones where blood cells are produced, thereby affecting the development of new blood within the body. Newly produced blood cells are unable to mature into healthy cells, entering the body at reduced efficiency and effectively poisoning the body over time as contaminated marrow continues to produce more corrupted blood. If untreated, the condition can develop into acute myeloid leukemia. Treatment options range from lifestyle changes to drug regiments to radiation treatment. Steve has been undergoing routine chemotherapy injections three times a day for a week out of each month, which have helped to keep his condition stable. However, what Steve truly needs is a bone marrow transplant.
This is a process by which healthy stem cells are extracted from the marrow of a donor and used to replace the contaminated cells of the recipient. The patient is required to undergo radiation treatments in order to weaken the immune system to the point where the body will not reject the donor marrow as a foreign substance, requiring a period of isolation within the hospital and several more months of near isolation at home while the immune system recovers. During this time, the patient becomes highly susceptible to even the most common of infections. It is a difficult process that impacts every aspect of life. However, it is also the only surefire cure for a case of Myelodysplastic Syndrome such as Steve’s.
However, bone marrow transplants are difficult to facilitate. Unlike other organ transplants where blood type is the primary factor in compatibility, marrow transfers require a close genetic match to achieve. A close blood relation is typically considered the best candidate, though even this is no guarantee as only thirty percent of transplants worldwide utilize a close blood relation as the donor. According to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, approximately eighteen thousand patients are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses where a bone marrow transplant represents their best chance of recovery. Unfortunately, according to data from the same agency, only around two thousand transplants are performed in the U.S. each year. For his part, Steve does not have any close family that meets the strict age requirements and so another donor must be found. This is where we can help.
U.S. and international donor registries are in desperate need of more volunteer donors. If you are between the ages of 18 and 49, you can go to www.bethematch.org and www.dkms.org and sign up to become a marrow donor. Testing is as simple as requesting a swab kit and the results will be added to the registries going forward. If a match for Steve is found, that information will be forwarded to his doctors and steps toward scheduling the procedure can begin. However, when I spoke with Steve on the phone, he was adamant that this is about more than just him.
A new patient is diagnosed with blood cancer every twenty-seven seconds, and he is hopeful that if a member of our Local is matched with another patient, we will step up to save a life—any life—that can be saved. This is especially important for our members of color, as the ability to find a matching donor is highly skewed around ethnic backgrounds. According to the data on bethematch.org, while there is a seventy-nine percent likelihood of finding a compatible match for Caucasian patients, that probability drops to sixty percent, forty-eight percent, forty-seven percent, and twenty-nine percent for Native American, Hispanic, Asian & Pacific Islander, and African American patients respectively. All of these groups are dangerously underrepresented across donor registries, making it far more difficult for patients of color to receive the life-saving treatment that they need.
If you do not meet the donor age requirements or are not healthy enough to become a donor, there is still plenty that you can do. In January of this year, the American Red Cross declared a national blood shortage amidst the omicron variant surge of COVID-19, with distributors being forced to ration supplies for fear of running out. For obvious reasons, this is of particular concern for blood cancer patients like Steve, many of whom undergo routine blood transfusions in order to compensate for the abnormal cells their bodies produce. Signing up to become a blood donor does not come with the same strict restrictions as becoming a marrow donor, and so I am encouraging everyone reading this to do so if they can. According to the Red Cross, a single blood donation can save as many as three lives, meaning that if every person receiving this magazine were to donate, up to seventy-five hundred lives could be saved.
There’s also a need for monetary donations. Donations of any size to either Be the Match or DKMS can mean the difference between life and death for blood cancer patients, as they facilitate outreach to expand the registry databases, cover the costs of registering new donors, and go toward research for new methods of treating blood cancer. Both organizations have longstanding reputations of good faith conduct when it comes to handling donor money and are relentless in their shared mission to fight blood cancer across the globe.
As far as Steve is concerned, this difficult battle will continue until a match can be found. Between the heightened risk posed by COVID-19 and the toll chemotherapy takes on him, it has been difficult for him to work in the last year. In January, he spoke about his condition at our Local 695 General Membership Meeting.
“I want to live,” he told us. “I don’t like asking for help, but I’m asking for everyone to help get the word out. If we find a match, that would be wonderful. But if we can help save someone else’s life too, that would make me very happy.”
Getting the word out is the very least that we can do. The thoughts of everyone at Local 695 will continue to be with Steve as his fight continues. If anyone would like to reach out to him to offer support of any kind, please reach out to the Local 695 office to be put in contact. In the meantime, sign up to become a donor if you can. Sign up to give blood if you can. Sign up to give money if you can.
Save a life if you can.