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July 26, 2014

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Joining bone marrow registry could save a life

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Justin M. Bowen

Leon Porter swabs his cheek to get a tissue sample during the bone marrow registration drive was held Saturday, April 9, 2011 at the Dr. William U. Pearson Community Center in Las Vegas. The drive was for Las Vegan Jeffery Watkins and other African-Americans in need of bone marrow transplants.

Bone Marrow Drive

A volunteer enters the Dr. William U. Pearson Community Center in Las Vegas during the bone marrow registration drive was held Saturday, April 9, 2011. The drive was for  Las Vegan Jeffery Watkins and other African-Americans in need of bone marrow transplants. Launch slideshow »

Jeffery Watkins’ family was shocked when the physically-fit father and probation officer was diagnosed last fall with acute myelogenous leukemia, a cancer that impacts blood and bone marrow.

But while Watkins waits for a life-saving bone marrow transplant, his family was helping organize a drive on Saturday to get more people signed up to be marrow donors.

Watkins, 45, grew up in West Las Vegas, attended UNLV and has worked for the county’s Juvenile Justice Services for 20 years.

The father of three was active, regularly jogging and lifting weights, but when he went to his doctor because his feet were swelling, he learned he had a deadly cancer without almost no symptoms. He was immediately sent to the hospital and has been undergoing chemotherapy.

“At this point, it’s just about stabilizing him until the next step, which is the transplant,” said his sister, Dereatha Watkins.

Unfortunately, Watkins’ siblings weren’t a match and cannot donate marrow for him, so he becomes one of the 6,000 people waiting for a matching donor.

Because Watkins is black, his odds of finding a donor are reduced. While there are 9 million people registered with the National Marrow Donor Program, 73 percent are white, and when it comes to finding a marrow donor, race is key, said the program’s Oscar Correa.

“Race matters in the matching process. That’s why we’re here in the black community,” Correa said.

Watkins’ family worked with the donor program and the Steven L. Pearson Leukemia Foundation, a Phoenix-based group that works with blacks with leukemia, to hold a donor drive Saturday at the Pearson Community Center in West Las Vegas.

In the first hour alone, more than 30 people signed up for the registry and were swabbed for a tissue sample to be tested. It’s simple and painless — “and you could save somebody’s life,” Correa said.

Even if no donor is found for Watkins at the event, everyone who participates will be part of the national registry and could potentially be a match for someone else.

“It doesn’t matter where they are from, as long as they get on the registry,” said Stephanie Pearson, who started the foundation after her husband died from leukemia.

While bone marrow transplants used to require the donor to be put under anesthesia for a surgical procedure, most donations now use stem cells from the donor’s blood, and donating is similar to a regular blood donation, Correa said.

Leon Porter works with Watkins and was at the event. “I saw his kids grow up. Now they need black donors, and I’m just doing my part,” he said.

Beverly Scott saw a poster advertising the drive at work and decided to sign up.

“I always wanted to. I just haven’t. So when I saw the poster, I made it a priority,” she said.

While the donation drive was only one day, anyone can go to the registry website to sign up and send a tissue sample through the mail.

Watkins’ wife, Connie, said life has been difficult since the diagnosis, but she is grateful for the support she has received.

“It’s been hectic, balancing work the kids, him in the hospital,” she said. “But we’re doing it with all the prayers and support of the community.”

While her husband was the absent face of the drive, the real goal is building the national registry, she said. “We just want to get as many people as we can,” she said.

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