Seeing red: Stem cell testing goes better than anticipated

Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Tuesday's blood and stem cell testing drive in Soldotna was a tremendous success, as area residents arrived at Christ Lutheran Church en masse to see if they could help save a life.

In fact, the drive drew so many people, the Blood Bank of Alaska Kenai Peninsula Chapter will continue it today.

"The turnout is amazing," said Christ Lutheran Pastor Randy Parshall. "I think it's beyond what anybody even thought."

The drive originally was planned as a benefit for area residents Sue Stein and Tommy Ellison, who both suffer from non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Stein and Ellison each are on their second lapse of the disease and need blood stem cell transplants to help restore their bodies' abilities to produce healthy blood cells.

And they are not alone.

Thousands of Americans are diagnosed each year with life-threatening cancers that require stem cell transplants for treatment.

One of the primary challenges to such treatments is the shortage of donors. Testing to become a donor is relatively simple. It requires donating a single vial of blood, which is tested and entered in the National Marrow Donors Registry.

Actually donating stem cells also is a fairly painless process, in which a donor has a few cell-stimulating injections then has blood drawn, siphoned for stem cells and replaced in the body. However, knowledge of the testing process and the need for donors has been slow to spread.

That's why Stein, the blood bank and other area organizations decided to sponsor a local drive and education campaign.

It seems to have worked.

Tuesday morning, before the drive, the blood bank had 35 people with appointments at the drive and expected a handful of walk-ins. Ten minutes before the drive started, though, nearly 15 people already were standing in line to offer a sample of their blood and more were streaming in by the minute.

"I know both (Tommy and Sue)," said Soldotna resident Sonja Moore, one of the early arrivals at the drive. "I'm doing this in support of them. If I'm not able to help them, hopefully, I'll be able to help someone else."

Soldotna resident Misty Hamil-ton agreed.

"I don't know them at all," she said. "But I saw the paper and thought it would be great to help somebody out."

In addition to donors, Ellison's family also was at the drive to greet and thank those who showed up.

"People see two people in the community who need stem cells," said Kerstin Ellison, Tommy's wife. "And this is such a small community, imagine what the nationwide need is and how easy it is to help."

Ellison also had some good news about her husband: After nearly three months of waiting, the registry found someone to donate stem cells for him. The Ellisons will leave for Seattle in about two weeks to begin the transplant process. Though the donor is only a partial match for Tommy Ellison's stem cell type, it may be enough. But, Kerstin Ellison added, there still is time for a perfect match to turn up, either from the Soldotna drive or from somewhere else in the nation.

"He's doing great, really good," Ellison said of her husband, who is working in Prudhoe Bay.

Stein already is in Phoenix, where she begins a round of re-evaluating tests today for her transplant.

Still, both Stein and Ellison emphasized last week the importance of community members being tested if not for their benefit, for someone else.

Kelly De Sieyes was doing just that at the drive Tuesday.

She said she is a strong proponent of blood donation and believes stem cell testing is simply an extension of that.

"It's a simple and important way for us to potentially help a lot of people," De Sieyes said. "It should be a matter of routine across the country for everyone."

The rest of the community will have an opportunity to make testing a part of their routine today.

The drive will continue from 2 to 6 p.m. today at Christ Lutheran Church. Residents may give a pint of blood for donation, offer a vial for stem cell testing or do both. Those with appointments will be expedited through the donation process, which can take 30 minutes to an hour with form completion, screening questions and donation. Walk-ins also are welcome.

In addition, the blood bank will continue to offer stem cell testing for free throughout the month of August. Though the testing generally costs $60 to $70 per person, BP Exploration has offered funds to help cover the costs. The company also encourages other individuals and businesses to contribute to the cause and has offered matching funding.

"I look around and I see several people who have survived cancer, people whose spouses have had cancer. I see people just wanting to do this, to be able to be a part of this and save a life down the road," said Rosanne VanRay, Tommy Ellison's mother-in-law. "I've always known I wanted to live in a small town, this just proves it."

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