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Spokane high school student encourages people to donate bone marrow

Jan. 16, 2017 Updated Mon., Jan. 16, 2017 at 8:59 p.m.

Graze Neayizeye, 17, stands to acknowledge the crowd at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, after a video was shown telling the story of the need for bone marrow donors. Neayizeye goes to Lewis and Clark High School and has sickle cell anemia. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Graze Neayizeye, 17, stands to acknowledge the crowd at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, after a video was shown telling the story of the need for bone marrow donors. Neayizeye goes to Lewis and Clark High School and has sickle cell anemia. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Grace Neayizeye knows what it’s like to wait.

The 17-year-old Lewis and Clark student was born with sickle cell anemia and has to get regular blood transfusions to stay alive. A bone marrow transplant would let her body start producing healthy blood cells, but so far, she hasn’t been able to find a match.

Neayizeye shared her story at Spokane’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Rally and March, hoping to encourage more people to sign up to be bone marrow and blood donors.

Patients in need of bone marrow are most likely to find a match in their own ethnic group, but the registry of existing donors is disproportionately made of white people.

Just 7 percent of donors on the registry are black, which can mean a long wait for patients like Neayizeye.

She’s hoping to get a match before her high school graduation in the spring so she can receive new bone marrow at the start of the summer.

“It worked out to be the best thing,” she said of the timing. But first, she needs more people to step up.

Volunteers with Be the Match, the national bone marrow registry, and the Inland Northwest Blood Center were at the resource fair following the march, hoping to recruit more donors.

“It’s really important that people in these categories sign up,” said Be the Match volunteer Jayn Courchaine, referring to racial and ethnic minorities.

Ethnicity doesn’t usually matter when matching blood donors to transfusion recipients, INBC spokeswoman Tesia Hummer said. And bone marrow donors of all races are still needed.

Patients with dozens of diseases and conditions, including leukemia and other blood cancers, can benefit from bone marrow transplants. People between 18 and 44 can join the registry online at BetheMatch.org. Donors over 44 can also register, but are asked to contribute toward the cost of processing their kit.

The registration process involves filling out a form with medical history and contact information and sending in a saliva swab kit, which Be the Match mails to prospective donors.

Neayizeye said she hoped her presence would encourage a diverse group of people to sign up.

“I would tell them to donate because they’re not dying, they’re not getting sick, they’re actually doing something great and they get to walk away from that feeling amazing,” she said.

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