Leukemia survivor biking across US to encourage diversity in bone marrow, stem cell donation

'It is something that you don't think about until you need it,' stem cell transplant recipient said

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ByWill Jones via WLS logo
Saturday, August 6, 2022 3:46AM
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People of color are far less likely to find a match because of the lack of diversity among donors.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- When it comes to finding a bone marrow match, race and ethnicity matter.

A patient has a better chance of finding a match with someone of a similar background.

But people of color are far less likely to find a match because of the lack of diversity among donors.

A leukemia survivor is working to change that by pedaling across the country on his bike.

"It gets really difficult. But I'll be the first one to tell you -- not as challenging as sitting in your hospital room looking through the window, hoping that there's a cure for you," Ahamadu Sirleaf said.

Sirleaf is riding across America on his bike to encourage people of color to sign up for the National Marrow Donor Program.

RELATED: Stem cell transplant saves life of Bourbonnais toddler with leukemia

Out of all the demographic groups, Black people are the least likely to find a match and white people are the most likely, according to Be The Match.

"If somebody who has a high-risk disease is not able to get their transplant, then their chances of dying from that disease is much higher than someone who was able to get a stem cell transplant," said Dr. Kehinde Adekola, an oncologist and hematologist at Lurie Cancer Center at Northwestern Medicine.

Doctors were not able to find a match for Sirleaf in the national registry.

After sending test kits to his siblings in his native Liberia, they discovered Sirleaf's younger brother was a half-match.

Fortunately, Sirleaf's younger brother was a half-match. Sirleaf underwent a bone marrow transplant.

He's now determined to help others.

Sirleaf is partnering with Northwestern Medicine and Be the Match to host a Bone Marrow Drive at Apostolic Faith Church in Bronzeville on Sunday. The event will be at Apostolic Faith Church, located at 3823 S. Indiana Ave. from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

"We have to get African Americans to sign up to be donors, whatever the disparity, whatever is causing the disparity, we need to take down that barrier," Sirleaf said.

Sirleaf is the founder and executive director of Hope is Loud, a non-profit that seeks to raise awareness about health inequities that affect the BIPOC communities.

Another recent stem cell transplant recipient at Northwestern Memorial said raising awareness is key to increase the number of donors from communities of color.

"It is something that you don't think about until you need it, or someone you love needs it. It is just something that we have to keep talking about," Sharrell Griffin-Smith said.

Sirleaf began his journey in Washington, D.C. on July 29. His final destination is Seattle. He hopes to arrive there next Friday. With each stop, Sirleaf wants to inspire people to tackle health inequities in their communities.

"We want to be able to implant a movement, so to speak, in each of these churches and cities that we go through so those people can continue to work," Sirleaf said.

If you're interested in becoming a bone marrow donor, click here for more information.