Area woman’s disease puts focus on need for stem cell donations

Posted: Thursday, February 16, 2012 8:05 am | Updated: 2:27 pm, Thu Feb 16, 2012.

PITTSBURG — A brief cheek swab can wind up saving a life — and the life saved may be one of East Texas’ own.

Be The Match Registry will be camped out in the atrium of East Texas Medical Center in Pittsburg from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Feb. 23 to take samples for the registry, which is just a sweep of the inside of a person’s cheek with a cotton swab. The organization nationally matches stem cell donors with those in need of a transplant.

Pittsburg resident Wanda Warrick has been diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a precursor to leukemia, and is in need of a stem cell transplant. She and her husband, Larry Warrick, joined up with Be The Match to help search for a donor.

He said the other way of looking at it would be if they wait too long, the disease could go further south and turn into leukemia, which is a cancer of the bone marrow.

Wanda Warrick was diagnosed five-and-a-half years ago with the disease and was told that within four or five years she would have to have a stem cell transplant. Larry Warrick said they’ve been lucky with the disease so far.

“Hers has been real slow to decline,” he said.

The couple went to visit a specialist in Seattle, where doctors started researching it before anyone else, he said.

“They do about 600 transplants a year,” Larry said. “(The doctor) goes, ‘10 years at the most, anybody would go with that. You’re one of the more fortunate ones.’ ”

Wanda Warrick is a former LVN, but Larry Warrick said the disease has taken that away from her, since one of the symptoms is a lessening of the body’s immune responses.

“She has a low platelet count,” he said. “If she’s cut, she bleeds easily. She gets sick easily. It took her out of the nursing field because she couldn’t make it through a full day’s shift.”

Now, Larry said, she can do some light housework in the morning, but fades around noon and has to nap.

The donor part of the transplant procedure is, thanks to recent technology, fairly simple — and free, thanks to Be The Match and the Warricks’ insurance. After the cheek swab, the donor is put on the list and checked against those in need of a transplant. After a hormone injection every day for five days, the donor is attached to a machine like a kidney dialysis machine, which circulates the blood through the machine, draws out the stem cells and then sends the blood back into the body through a needle in the other arm.

“Every once in a while, if they can’t get enough, they will do a bone marrow transplant,” Larry Warrick said. “Used to they had to do it from the bone marrow all the time.”

Wanda’s part of the transplant is harder. In order for her body to receive the new stem cells, the doctors have to kill off as much of her original bone marrow as possible. This is done through chemotherapy and radiation.

“There’s a 35 percent chance this could kill her,” Larry Warrick said. “It’s one of the most difficult decisions a person can make.”

By killing off all of the bone marrow, the body is defenseless against any disease, even the common cold, which could be fatal.

The new stem cells would then be injected into Wanda Warrick and allowed to take over her bone marrow. She would then be put on transplant medication anywhere from a few months to several years to the rest of her life, depending on how close the match is and how successful the transplant.

His wife has decided to go through with the surgery, he said, if a match can be found.

“She’s going to have it done in Dallas,” Larry Warrick said. “She’s going to wait until after next May so she can see at least one of her grandchildren graduate.”

He encourages everyone to come donate.

“They might be able to save someone’s life, maybe not Wanda’s, but someone’s, and that would make her happy,” he said.

Not a lot of people are aware of this, he said, but bone marrow or stem cell donation is racially specific.

“Whites donate for whites, Indians for Indians, Hispanics for Hispanics,” Warrick said. “There is a greater need for black, Hispanic and oriental, because they donate less than white people. That’s a need a lot of people don’t realize.”

He said he’s grateful that ETMC is letting Be The Match use their facility for the drive.

“I’d like to thank ETMC,” he said.

For those who cannot make the first registration drive, another registration will be held March 31 also at ETMC Pittsburg and will include Carter BloodCare taking blood donations as well.

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Area woman’s disease puts focus on need for stem cell donations

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