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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Campuses compete to register bone marrow donors

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Ali Baghbani, whose son needs a bone marrow transplant,  attended a “Get Swabbed” drive at Carleton University last week. [Cara Stern photo]

OTTAWA — Ali Baghbani has spent months hoping for a bone marrow match for his son, Tymaz. He’s visited Get Swabbed drives at universities across Ontario, as well as one in Montreal.

“[Tymaz] has been for multiple chemotherapy treatments, but he’s still looking for his bone marrow match,” Baghbani said.

The 15-year-old Torontonian’s face was on posters all around the University Centre at Carleton University on Nov. 4, though he is just one of the almost 1,000 patients in Canada waiting to find a match.

The Get Swabbed drive began with a single event at McMaster University in 2009. Each year, an increasing number of schools have taken up the challenge, and there has been a huge surge in support this year, with 20 schools participating, almost double compared to last year, said Jessica Stergiou co-ordinator of donor management for Canadian Blood Services’ OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network.

The Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi was at the helm of the drive in Ottawa, focusing its event on three patients, including Tymaz.

The universities compete for a trophy that will go to the school with the most male registrants per capita, Stergiou said.

This year, she said, the drives targeted men, particularly those from non-white backgrounds, since this group is significantly underrepresented in the database.

“Males make the best stem cell donors, with better patient outcomes,” Stergiou said, adding that in the unlikely scenario where a patient has multiple matches, the doctor will go with the youngest male available.

Volunteers rounded up men as they walked through the atrium at Carleton to convince them to join the international OneMatch database.

In total, the Ottawa drive registered 337 males, four females and 15 online female registrants, according to Ayal Sadeh, vice-president of the Ottawa AEPi chapter.

The disparity comes from a lack of resources, he said. They were given 600 swab kits and had a limited number of volunteers, so they spent the time registering men, directing most of the women who approached the tables to a computer where they could register online for a mail-in swab kit.

Sadeh said it’s ideal to get young people registered since they are fit for a potential donation for the longest possible time, so this was perfect for a university event.

For the second year in a row, the McMaster chapter of AEPi ran a 24-hour drive and broke the Guinness World Record for the most registrants in a day, registering 1,162 people.

Although the University of Guelph beat that number, collecting 1,560 cheek swabs, they didn’t qualify for the Guinness record because their drive lasted 12 hours, instead of the continuous 24-hour period required to qualify for the record.

Only about one-third of Guelph’s registrants were male, but it must be considered that the university has almost eight female students for every male student, Stergiou said.

It was exciting to see everybody’s reactions when they heard the total, said Sarah Paolucci, co-organizer of the drive at Guelph. “We never really thought we would hit anything near this number.”

Many volunteers were directly affected by the cause. Gina Parker was one volunteer at Carleton who spent the day helping registrants fill out the necessary questionnaires. She said she was hoping to help find a match for her younger brother, who was diagnosed with leukemia in May.

Though the drive doesn’t aim to match specific people, she said, widening the database would increase her brother’s chances of finding a match.

Many of those who volunteered, however, had no personal connection.

“There’s nothing bad in helping to save a life, so the more I can do, the better,” said Jesse Smiley, a first-year student at the University of Ottawa, who is in the process of joining AEPi.

Baghbani said he had hoped there would be more Lebanese registrants, since a person is much more likely to find a match from those with a similar background. But he was thrilled with the turnout.

In the end, Ottawa’s AEPi were pleased with both the number of registrants and the chance to show the philanthropic side of the fraternity, although Sadeh said he hopes next year’s event will allow them to register both men and women.

“The interest on campus exceeded our wildest expectations,” he said. “It was truly successful in every way.”

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