By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published October 27, 2011
More than 1,000 people, from family members to friends and even strangers, took part in a drive Sept. 30 to try and find a bone marrow match for Isaac del Valle, a Marist 10th-grader with leukemia.
Marist School served as the host for the bone marrow drive, which attempted to find a match for Isaac, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in March 2006 when he was 10 years old.
After Isaac received three and a half years of treatment—one year of intense chemotherapy and two and a half years of maintenance chemo—the family was advised that a bone marrow transplant was needed.
In patients with leukemia, the stem cells in the bone marrow malfunction, producing an excessive number of defective or immature blood cells. A bone marrow transplant enables doctors to treat these diseases with aggressive chemotherapy, radiation, or both, by allowing replacement of the diseased or damaged bone marrow after the treatment. But a search of 8 million donors already registered in a national bone marrow registry did not result in a match for Isaac.
According to CURE Childhood Cancer, who, along with 11Alive, helped arrange the event at Marist, doctors look for a donor who matches the patient’s tissue type, specifically their human leukocyte antigen tissue type. The immune system uses the markers to recognize which cells belong in one’s body and which do not. The closer the match between the patient’s HLA markers and the donor’s the better.
Doctors believed the most likely match for Isaac would be someone of mixed Hispanic and Caucasian background, but no one was turned away during the drive at Marist. Donors, who must be 18 to 60 years old, have a swab of cheek cells taken in the initial test.
Isaac’s grandfather, Bill O’Brien, said the response from the community was incredible.
“The number of people who turned out was amazing,” he said. “He’s reached an awful lot of people.”
Isaac and his parents, Linda and Antonio, briefly stopped by Marist on the way to his chemotherapy appointment and he received a warm welcome.
“When he walked in, everybody applauded,” recalled O’Brien. “We were just overwhelmed when we saw the people there.”
O’Brien said even though there have been extremely difficult times for Isaac and the family, his grandson remains in good spirits.
“Isaac’s never really been down. He has always had a really good attitude,” said O’Brien.
Lynne Bauman, a Marist parent, was touched when she heard Isaac’s story and helped to arrange the drive with CURE Childhood Cancer and its executive director, Kristin Connor.
“It was really amazing to see the entire community come together to help Isaac,” Bauman said. “The people at Marist were so accommodating and helped with any and everything we requested or needed. They were instrumental in communicating the event to the Marist faculty, current Marist families and alumni.”
Bauman also said some parishes have been holding their own drives, and testing kits have been sent out of state to people who have learned of Isaac’s story through the media.
“We tested over 1,020 people at Marist … and we continued to do some testing following that. In fact, over 100 people at St. Thomas Aquinas Church were tested … following the Hispanic Masses on Saturday and Sunday, and CURE continued to send out more tests to people who were interested in being tested but couldn’t make it to the bone marrow drive,” Bauman said.
Although the Marist event started at noon, people began to arrive as early as 10 a.m., Connor wrote by email. “The first to arrive was a gentleman of mixed Mexican/American background. As he handed his sample over to our volunteer, he said, ‘I think I might be the one. … I don’t know this kid, but I have been following it on the news, and I just knew I needed to be here.’”
“The man said he was blown away by the testing event and had never seen or been a part of something like it in his life,” Connor continued.
A couple in Atlanta for a wedding and an off-duty police officer also came after they heard about the drive on 11Alive News.
Isaac’s classmates, who are too young to be donors, helped out in any way they could.
“They came in droves to help their friend,” Connor wrote. “They conducted traffic, hosted visitors and welcomed them to their school. They did anything and everything asked of them and cheerfully so.”
Unfortunately, so far no match has been found for Isaac from the Marist drive. Connor said there were three “first-level matches” that came from the drive, though more tests revealed that these possible donors were not appropriate matches. She said the family is now planning to have an experimental “haplo transplant,” in which bone marrow from Isaac’s mother, who is a half-match, would be used.
Connor said preliminary tests for the transplant are being done in the Atlanta area. The family has not decided on the facility where the procedure will be done, Connor said. She said possibilities include St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The transplant is scheduled for mid-November. Family and friends continue to appeal for prayers and support.
“The impact of the day was far-reaching,” wrote Connor about the Marist drive. “We were completely overwhelmed by the support for Isaac and his family, and from what we saw and heard, we have no doubt that lives were changed in the pursuit to help a boy and a family we all love.”
For information on testing, donations, or updates on Isaac, visit www.curechildhoodcancer.org/tag/isaac-del-valle.