LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 7, 2016) – On his 45th birthday, University of Kentucky employee Jimmy Thomas got some dire news. After weeks of feeling under the weather, Thomas was diagnosed with leukemia on Sept. 8 of last year.
“The news from my doctor telling me that I had leukemia was shocking and devastating,” Thomas said. “As many times as I’ve visited friends and family in Markey, I never thought in a million years that I myself would be a patient there.”
Thomas underwent several rounds of chemotherapy at the UK Markey Cancer Center. As the months passed, the prognosis looked good: his cancer appeared to be in remission. After being off of work for 11 months, he was finally cleared to return to his job.
But on Aug. 12, a mere few weeks after returning to UK, his routine bloodwork and a bone marrow biopsy showed that leukemia had come back. Thomas was readmitted on Aug. 22. This time, he’ll need a bone marrow transplant to beat the cancer if he can get back in remission. As an African-American — a population that only makes up roughly 7 percent of the bone marrow registry – Thomas knows that finding a bone marrow match will be difficult for him.
For the second year in a row, Thomas will spend his birthday as an inpatient at Markey. But to make the day as special as possible, his family came up with a plan: since Thomas cannot leave the hospital, they’re bringing the party to him.
On Sept. 8 at 6 p.m., Thomas’s friends, family, UK coworkers and others will gather at the Markey courtyard to sing “Happy Birthday” to Thomas as he sits on the balcony of the inpatient floor. Attendees have been asked to wear orange, bring orange balloons or carry orange signs in honor of National Leukemia Awareness Month in September.
Immediately following the serenade, Thomas’s family, along with a representative from Be The Match, will be in the Combs Atrium with a supply of bone marrow registry kits from the Be the Match registry. Testing only requires a sample of cells, taken with cotton swab on the inside of the cheek. The kits will be mailed back to Be the Match and added to the registry.
Joining the registry is not a guarantee that you will be asked to donate – some people are never called; others may be called multiple times as a potential donor. Additionally, medical research shows that younger donors are best for patients and provide the greatest chance for transplant success. Because of this, doctors request donors in the 18 to 44 age group more than 95 percent of the time and the cost for this age group to sign up on the registry is free. Potential donors age 45 and older can participate but must enroll online and are required to make a $100 payment to cover the cost to join the registry. Potential donors over the age 44 are also able to join the registry through another donor site, DKMS, for a slightly lower fee of $60.
Though there’s no guarantee that any participants in their bone marrow registry drive will be a match for Thomas, he hopes the event will at least help raise awareness about bone marrow donation and the need for minority donors. While he says that dealing with the disease itself and side effects from chemotherapy are hard, knowing that he might face difficulty finding a bone marrow match is even harder.
“I guess the hardest part of it all is knowing that my best chance of survival is a bone marrow transplant and knowing that there’s such a low percentage of finding a possible match because I’m African-American,” Thomas said. “I encourage, plead, and beg not only African-Americans, but everyone to sign up on the National Bone Marrow Donor registry. There still might not be a match out there for me after people sign up, but at least it will give someone else a better chance for a life-saving match.”
Visitors are welcome to attend both Thomas’s birthday serenade in the Markey courtyard and the ensuing bone marrow registry drive at 6 p.m. Thursday evening. Public parking is available in the UK HealthCare garage on the corner of South Limestone and Transcript Avenue.
If you are interested in joining the Be the Match registry but are unable to attend the drive, visit Be the Match for information on requesting your own testing kit.
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