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Yk rises to stem cell challenge

Peter Varga
Northern News Services
Published Monday, May 31 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - The Yellowknife Fire department got an overwhelming response from the public for the National EMS Stem Cell Challenge last week, registering 896 stem cell donors - amounting to nearly five per cent of the city's population.

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Mackenzie Lowen, a Grade 12 student of St. Patrick's School, participates in the Stem Cell Challenge at the school on May 19. - Adrian Lysenko/NNSL photo

That was sweet news to the ears of Leanne Dragon, who was among those volunteers. Her young nephew in Saskatchewan needed - and recently found - a bone marrow donor when he was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this year.

"You kind of think it's always going to be somebody else, until it happens to you," said Dragon, a mother of two who practises law in Yellowknife. "I sort of had it in the back of my mind."

Luke Boechler, 19, was diagnosed in February, said Dragon. The young athlete had to put off his hockey aspirations to undergo treatment, and though neither Dragon nor any other family members could provide a match, he was fortunate to find a bone marrow donor through One Match, a Canadian Blood Services program that matches stem cell and bone marrow donors with patients.

"It's a bit of a crap-shoot. It depends on who volunteers, who signs up, and the 10-point test," said Dragon. "The more people are signed up, the better the odds of a match," she said - and of saving a life.

On hearing about the number of people registered, "I was blown out of the water," said campaign organizer Gerda Groothuizen, deputy fire chief in charge of Life Safety and Prevention at the Yellowknife fire department.

Those who registered had to be between the ages of 17 and 50, said Groothuizen, "and they all have to be relatively healthy, and have no communicable disease."

"So between all that, to say we have five per cent of the population (of Yellowknife), I think that's just absolutely incredible," she said.

The fire department came close to using up a supply of 1,000 kits needed to collect samples from individual donors, said the deputy chief, out of a total 11,000 kits sent out to emergency medical services across the country as part of the national challenge.

Those who register for stem cell donations provided cheek swabs from the inside of their mouths, which are then analyzed, and results put in a stem cell registry. This is checked by doctors of patients who need bone marrow or stem cell transplants to survive cancer and other potentially fatal diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma. Matches are then made with compatible donors.

If a match for a patient is found, the donor is then given a physical exam to confirm they can donate their stem cells through their blood or bone marrow, said Groothuizen. "And if everything's still a go, they would be flown to Edmonton to donate their stem cells."

With the help of volunteers, the fire department took donations at various locations throughout the city, including the Centre Square Mall, the Co-op, St. Patrick and Sir John Franklin High Schools, Aurora College, and city hall.

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