SA Bone Marrow Registry saves lives

Andrew Melck with Dr Darren Green at the 2016 WP Blood Transfusion Service Donor Awards.

When Andrew Melck, 27, first heard he had leukaemia, he thought his options were non-existent, but then he found a powerful ally to help him fight his cancer.

The young Rondebosch resident turned to the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) in Salt River to help him find a bone marrow stem cell donor.

That day in September 2015, when Mr Melck heard his diagnosis is one he will not soon forget.

“When I initially got the call to see my GP, sitting in the consultation room and actually hearing the words ‘cancer’ and ‘leukaemia’ is an experience I still grapple to comprehend. For a few minutes, I was in shock, and you feel that you have no options, but then the defiance kicks in and I was determined to beat this disease.”

There was a 25 percent chance his brother would be a match for a life-saving bone marrow transplant.

“My brother was tested, and despite all the common traits we share, was not a match. My extended family also rallied together to get tested. However, once a person is not your sibling, the odds of a match decrease exponentially.”

Two months after the diagnosis, SABMR found a match for Mr Melck on the German database.

When he heard this news, he felt relieved and it encouraged him to keep on fighting.

“Words can’t describe the gratitude one has for the people involved in providing you with a chance of survival. On a mission to deliver the cells from the unselfish donor, the courier takes part in a race against time and is often faced with immense challenges. Their determination saves lives and we, as patients, are eternally grateful for this.”

Mr Melck is one of 70 percent of patients with life-threatening blood disorders who rely on finding a match from an unrelated donor.

SABMR has close to 74 000 registered donors in South Africa and has partnered with donor registries in 56 countries to increase the chance of finding the perfect match for patients.

Once the search for the match ends, a race against time begins, says SABMR assistant harvest coordinator Jane Ward.

“The bag of life-saving stem cell fluid must be transported by a personal courier and arrive within 72 hours to remain effective for transplant. It is kept in a small, cool, temperature-monitored hamper and closely watched to ensure its safety.

“The journey of travelling stem cells has the potential to save a life. Precise co-ordination, flight scheduling and possible delays all affect the outcome of the delivery. It’s often a matter of life or death.”

The bone marrow registry has helped save the lives of hundreds of patients with life-threatening blood diseases, and approximately 30 times a year a couriers travels to fetch stem cells from anonymous overseas donors, delivering them to South African patients awaiting bone marrow transplants.

“Timing is everything when a patient needs a bone marrow transplant to survive and the journey of stem cells for transplant is planned like a military operation. From searching for the right tissue match, to finding someone who is like an identical twin found in the general public, to co-ordinating the collection and delivery of stem cells. Nothing is left to chance,” said Ms Ward.

For further information on the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR), call 021 447 8638 or visit their website www.sabmr.co.za.