February 15, 2010
Jennifer Jones Austin has been an advocate for women and children for more than 20 years. But today Austin, 41, is fighting for her own life.
Austin was recently diagnosed with leukemia and her only hope for a cure is a transplant from an unrelated bone marrow donor or umbilical cord blood unit. Like 70 percent of patients, Austin does not have a matching donor in her family, so she is depending on the Be The Match Registry® – the largest listing of volunteer marrow donors and donated cord blood – to find a match.
Because tissue types are inherited, Austin is most likely to match another African American. Today, African Americans comprise only 8 percent of the registry. Many more are needed to save patients’ lives. So, Austin – who was an attorney for 20 years and is now senior vice president of United Way New York City – is now using her personal network and professional expertise to raise awareness about the critical need for African Americans to join the Be The Match Registry.
“I simply didn’t know about the need before I was diagnosed – or how easy it can be to save someone’s life,” Austin said. “Now, I’m doing all I can to let people know of the importance of joining the Be The Match Registry. Not just for me, but for all of the other patients out there who are searching for a match.”
Be The Match® is working to fill the gap through targeted awareness programs in diverse communities across the country and is seeing results. Last year, more than 50,000 African Americans joined the Be The Match Registry.
But the need is still great. Be The Match recently launched its “Say It Loud! Save Lives and Be Proud!” program. That call to action is already being heard on HBCU campuses across America as Be The Match is partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to spread the word about the need to add more potential African American donors to the registry. Be The Match representatives are going on college campuses to get young people involved and they’re going online, too. The new http://hbcu.BeTheMatch.org site provides a space online for college students to connect with local Be The Match recruiters as well as other HBCU students.
A larger pool of potential bone marrow donors means patients will have a greater chance to find a match. No one knows this better than Sam Roberson Jr., who, like Austin, attended Howard University.
Roberson, now 26, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 8. At the time, his doctors told his parents that Sam had a 25 percent chance to live.
Roberson’s only hope for a cure was a bone marrow transplant. Fewer African Americans were on the registry back then, making the search all the more difficult.
In the end, he couldn’t find a match. So doctors used some of Sam’s own stem cells to treat him. He’s been in remission ever since – and beat the odds since he did not have a suitable match.
Because of his struggle, Roberson vowed to help other searching patients if he made it through.
He stayed true to that commitment in a big way. A writer and performer, Roberson wrote and directed a one-man show “And They Said I Wouldn’t Make It… A Story of Hope.” The play, which recently had a run in Minneapolis and is set to begin in Chicago later this month, is a narrative of hope and success and ends with a call to action.
“It’s critical that people get involved; that’s why I’m encouraging African American college students – and the greater community – to get involved and join the Be The Match Registry,” Roberson said.
Read more about the stories of Jennifer Jones Austin and Sam Roberson – and view photos and videos – by becoming a member of the online community at www.hbcu.BeTheMatch.org. The site also includes information on how to join the Be The Match Registry.