HARLINGEN, Texas (ValleyCentral) – A University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) lecturer saw her efforts come full circle when her significant other answered the call to donate his bone marrow to a 27-year-old leukemia patient.
When UTRGV Lecturer Alyssa Cerroni learned that her ethnically diverse students have less than a 50% chance of getting matched with a lifesaving bone marrow or blood donor, if they were to ever need one, she decided to do something about it.
“That was the part that really scared me and motivated me to be part of the process,” Cerroni said.
In 2019 Cerroni was contacted by a former professor who worked with the nonprofit, Be The Match, and was asked to promote the national donor program in her health communication classes. Be The Match finds compatible doners for patients with leukemia, sickle cell anemia, and many other diseases.
A compatible donor for life-saving blood or bone marrow transplants can be difficult to find; amongst family members, matches are only found 30% of the time. Be The Match combats that problem by encouraging people to add their DNA to a registry that could potentially match them with someone needing a life-saving donation. The samples of DNA are collected by swabbing the inside of the cheek.
Potential donors are found using human leukocyte antigen (HLA) markers. These proteins are used by the immune system and are responsible for telling the body which cells belong and which do not. Doctors find matches based on how close the donor and patient’s HLA markers resemble each other to ensure a successful transplant.
Several of Cerroni’s students have become involved with the non-profit as interns and help educate other students and collect DNA samples around the university. Over the last two years, 3,000 students, 90% of which were ethnically diverse, have been added to the registry and 41 students have donated either their bone marrow or blood cells.
Most people are called to donate peripheral blood stem cells which are drawn through the arm, similar to donating blood. The cases in which people are asked to go through the surgical bone marrow procedure are less likely. Those asked to donate bone marrow may be the patient’s only chance at recovery.
While Cerroni takes great pride in getting many students involved with this life-saving endeavor, she was elated to hear the news that someone close to her had heard to call to save a life.
A year after Cerroni’s significant, Erasmo Gonzalez, joined the registry, he was called to potentially save the life of a 27-year-old leukemia patient through a surgical bone marrow transplant.
“When I found out he got matched I was super excited, it was sort of this full-circle moment for me in my life because I had been begging my students and my interns to join the registry and ask their family and friends to join the registry. So, when he was matched, I felt like it was meant to be.”
Gonzalez was motivated to join the registry when he heard that Latinos have a lower chance of finding a match.
“At first I got a little scared about it, but then as we were talking about it, I was like, ‘I have to do it.’ Now that I know that I might give someone a chance to live, I just had to do it,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez had a speedy recovery from the surgical procedure. Though his back was sore, he was walking three hours post-surgery and was back at work teaching after four days.
After a year, patients can reach out to donors if they wish to meet.
“I’ve always wanted to be a match for somebody. It hasn’t happened to me in the three years that I’ve been on the registry, and it doesn’t happen for everybody but if it does happen for somebody, I hope they answer the call and they help that patient in need because they may be that patient’s only hope,” said Cerroni.
You can find out more about Be The Match or become a part of the registry on this website.