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Mother highlights racial disparities in bone marrow donor registry

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Posted at 9:08 AM, Apr 06, 2022

MILWAUKEE — In Two Americas, our goal is to bring you new perspectives and show you the America you know, and the America you might not.

We took a closer look at the lack of equity in the bone marrow donor registry.

Patients need a 100% DNA match. Surprisingly, more than 60% of matching donors are not family, but perfect strangers.

TMJ4 in Milwaukee spoke to a mother who is pleading for strangers to get a simple test to help save her son's life.

Kalen Gwin may look like any other 19-year-old, but his mother Shontelle says he is going through a lot.

"He fainted a total of five times before we figured out what was going on with him," Shontelle said.

"It is definitely a struggle, a battle," Kalen added.

A battle that took him to Children's Hospital three years ago. Doctors diagnosed him with Aplastic anemia, a rare condition where the body stops producing new blood cells.

"His blood count was two, and I was told if I would have put him to bed at home, he wouldn't have woken up," Shontelle said.

She says doctors told him in order to live a long healthy life, he needs a bone marrow transplant. He has been waiting for three years, because none of his family members are a perfect match.

"When I first heard it, it was kind of devastating," Kalen shared.

Be The Match representative Keesha Mason says there is a huge disparity in Black donors.

"Depending on your race, you have chances for how many matches you can find," Mason said.

If you are a white patient, there is a 79% t chance of finding a match. Hispanic patients have close to a 48% chance of finding a match. Black patients have the lowest chance at 29%, according to Mason.

"I guess they don't know what to expect being a donor," Shontelle said.

This is why his family started the online hashtag #TeamKalenStrong. They hope more people will realize all it takes is completing a swab test, which can be sent right to your home. If there is a match, about 1% to 5% of a donor's marrow is taken from the pelvic bone. Doctors say the donor's immune system stays strong and replaces itself completely in about six weeks.

Be The Match looks for donors who are 18 to 35 years old, because medical research shows younger donors have the best chance for transplant success.

To start your registration, click here.

This story was first reported by Julia Fello at WTMJin Milwaukee, Wisc.