There are some people you just can’t stop. Colin Hall is one of those people.
For the last year and a half, the Jonesboro native has had one mission: To get as many Arkansans as possible on the National Marrow Donor Program registry, which matches blood cancer patients in need of bone marrow transplants with possible donors. Hall has led more than 20 drives, launched a website to spread awareness about blood cancer and, on Saturday, will watch as runners take off in the Fighting Red 5K, a first-year race Hall has organized. And he’s not slowing down. Maybe you’ve heard of Leslie Harris. A good friend of Hall’s, she was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011, just five hours before giving birth to her son. Doctors gave her six months to a year to live unless she had a bone marrow transplant. It was a shock to everyone close to her, including Hall.
“I did a crash course,” Hall says, finding out everything he could about leukemia, blood cancers and bone marrow transplants. Hall learned that sometimes bone marrow can be donated by a family member, but the chance that a family member is a perfect 10 out of 10 match for the patient is only 25 to 30 percent. (Harris’ only sister was not her match.) He learned the good news: A complete stranger might provide a 10 out of 10 match, and getting onto an international registry of potential donors is as easy as having the inside of your cheek swiped with a cotton swab. But then he heard the bad news: Finding a perfect match from a stranger has odds of about 1 in 20,000.
Determined to help find Harris’ match, Hall attended a drive Harris’ friends had coordinated. But after months of waiting and no word of a match for Harris, Hall decided to hold his own drive at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church.
“We had about 350 get swabbed; we had about 400 people order kits online … it was really big, and I thought, ‘OK, maybe I should just keep doing these.’”
Since that first drive in February 2012, Hall has headed up swabbing drives at universities, including the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Henderson State University and Arkansas State University; festivals, like Riverfest, Maumelle Family Fest and Chili with a Kick; and just about anywhere else he's been allowed to set up a booth, like at McCain Mall and Flying DD.
Now, 18 months later, Hall is one of the leading organizers of swab drives in the country. “So you’re wondering if this is normal?” asks James Kirkland, donor recruitment coordinator at Delete Blood Cancer DKMS. “I’ll try to put it in terms of numbers. There are 10,000 patients a year who will require a transplant. Only half will get those. The fact that Colin has registered 7,000 people — what Colin is trying to do is find a match for all 10,000 people,” Kirkland says. “In Arkansas alone, Colin has nearly matched the national number of patients requiring transplants.”
But at first, there didn’t seem to be much luck with these drives. “I never heard anything about matches,” Hall says. “Then suddenly, one match came in, another one came in …” It was a result that Hall hadn’t predicted. No, these weren’t matches for Harris, but they were matches that would save someone else’s life. And that is what’s pushed him to continue, drive after drive, and in planning Saturday’s 5K, to get as many people on that registry as possible.
Of the more than 7,000 people Kirkland estimates Hall helped get on the list of potential donors, 102 of those have led to matches. But because of a number of factors, only seven of those have resulted in collections, or actual bone marrow donations. Adam O’Dell is one of those seven donors. O’Dell attended Hall's first drive at Pulaski Heights United Methodist, requested a free swabbing kit online and then mailed it to Delete Blood Cancer (the American branch of DKMS, another organization that registers potential bone marrow donors). Eight months later, O’Dell received the call that he was a match. The recipient unknown, O’Dell and his wife were flown to Chicago in June for the procedure that would send stem cells from his bone marrow to a complete stranger.
“After one year we’ll have the option to meet, and I would really like to meet him,” O’Dell says. “I don’t even know what country he’s from.”
The bone marrow transplant is a procedure that Hall says a lot of people still don’t know very much about, and that’s part of the need for more education. O’Dell agrees that more people would be willing to give if they knew how easy it was.
“I was able to explore Chicago with my wife on the same day I donated,” O’Dell says. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
The fact that there are donors like O’Dell out there gives Elizabeth Fortune, who Hall calls one of his “cancer heroes,” hope. Fortune was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May 2011. Though Hodgkin’s is the rarest form of lymphoma, Fortune’s doctors assured her that it is also the easiest to treat. “As I’m finding out two-and-a-half years later, it’s not always that easy,” Fortune says.
She’s been in treatment since 2011, been diagnosed three times and had one stem cell transplant — an operation that attempted to use her own cells but which failed in February. If all goes as planned, she has another transplant coming up, this time using blood marrow from a donor such as O’Dell.
Fortune understands there are many factors determining what happens next. She’s wary of naming dates and hesitant of being too optimistic. “[My match] may decide, ‘I can’t do this,’ or they go through some tests where maybe they can’t be a donor,” she says.
“I’m happy to hear there’s a donor who is happy to meet his recipient,” she says, after hearing about O’Dell’s experience. “It just kind of restores my faith in humanity that someone else wants to save your life — that it could be a stranger on the entire other side of the world. It’s very overwhelming.”
A bone marrow transplant isn't the only route that patients can take to overcome blood cancer. Stem cells can also be found in the remains of the umbilical cord after the birth of a healthy baby. Proceeds from Hall’s Fighting Red 5K will go toward the Cord Blood Bank at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, one of the largest adult blood cell transplant centers in the country. If a new mom wants to store those cells in case someone in her family needs them, she can do so for a fee. But if she just wants to donate them, it’s free. “It’s just another way [people] can help,” Hall says. “Otherwise, it’s just medical waste.”
Besides donating proceeds to the cord bank and swabbing people on race day, Hall’s main goal with the Fighting Red 5K is to spread awareness about blood cancers. “You hear about blood donations all the time, you really don’t hear about [bone marrow donations],” he says. “And that’s the biggest difference between this and other cancers and diseases. You can be proactive. You can at least give someone a shot, give them a chance to be treated.”
O’Dell agrees that if more people knew how easy it is to be a donor, they’d be getting swabbed. “So many people would be willing to register if they just knew more about the process,” O’Dell says. “I am so glad [Colin] has worked to put this all together.”
Today, Harris is in remission, despite never having a bone marrow transplant, and her 2-year-old son is healthy. And even though Hall shows no signs of stopping, the work he’s already done will continue to impact the lives of those who might not have even received a diagnosis yet. “It’s incredible to think he started this for one woman, and he’s already saved seven lives,” Kirkland says. “That will only grow, considering the number of people he’s gotten on the registry. He could stop tomorrow and that number would still double, triple, quadruple.”
“There’s so many people, and there’s such a need,” Hall says. “Part of the reason I want to do the race is just to educate people … I didn’t know about it, and it took my friend getting this disease for me to become aware. So I want to make people aware of if before they know somebody — I want them to already be on that list.”
READY TO RUN?
The Fighting Red 5K
Saturday, Oct. 5, 8 a.m.
Cook’s Landing (North Little Rock side of the Big Dam Bridge)
Race day registration: $35
Online preregistration (ends 11:59 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3): $30
Preregistration packet pick-up: Gearhead Outfitters at Park Plaza Mall, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4
For more information on the Fighting Red 5K, visit fightingred5k.com.
BY THE NUMBERS
18-55: Ages eligible to be a potential donor
4: Every four minutes, someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with a blood cancer
60,000: Estimated deaths from blood cancer this year
1 in 20,000: Chances of finding an allogenic (unrelated) donor
2: Percent of the population on the bone marrow donor registry
10,000: Patients who need transplants this year
7,000: People swabbed at Hall’s drives in Arkansas
102: Matches found at Hall’s drives
7: Lives saved by donors swabbed at Hall's drives
0: Dollars it costs to be a bone marrow donor
Statistics via Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Be The Match, Leukemia Research Foundation and Delete Blood Cancer.
Print Headline: Unstoppable