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Jeanne Sager | Democrat

REGINA WAGNER OF Jeffersonville is hoping to find a donor match in two bone marrow drives taking place on May 15.

She's waiting for a chance at life

By Jeanne Sager
JEFFERSONVILLE — April 25, 2008 — One swish around the mouth with a cotton swab could mean the difference between life and death.
One swish – it’s just enough to collect a sample of the cheek cells that will add your tissue-type to the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) and the World Marrow Donor Association (WMDA).
In America alone, the NMDP is contacted by 6,000 people a day looking for a match, people with leukemia, people with lymphoma, people like Regina Wagner of Jeffersonville.
The retired educator learned last spring that neither her white blood cells nor the platelets in her blood are producing at a normal rate. Her diagnosis? Myelodysplasia, a form of leukemia.
In a healthy individual, bone marrow makes blood stem cells – immature cells – that develop into mature blood cells over time. In a patient with myelodysplasia, the stem cells never mature, and the body fails to properly produce the cells that make up healthy blood.
In Wagner’s case, that means her white blood cells – those responsible for fighting off infection – have dipped to almost non-existent. Her platelets - responsible for clotting – are lower than most.
Specialists at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City have told her the best option is likely a bone marrow transplant. While chemotherapy is being considered to keep the cancer at bay, a transplant represents a cure.
But finding a match isn’t simple.
According to the NMDP, donors cells are analyzed to find markers called human leukocyte antigen (HLA). A patients’ HLA must match a donor’s almost identically as the body’s immune system uses these markers to recognize which cells belong and which do not.
If the match isn’t close enough, the patient’s immune system will attack the transplant.
That’s why with millions on the registry, there are still patients searching every day. Wagner’s doctors have already punched her HLA markers into the system. They’re still waiting for a match.
But she’s not going to sit around and wait.
Wagner and a group of dedicated friends have contacted DKMS, a German-based non-profit with offices in the United States aimed at putting more donors on the world-wide donor registry.
At the heart of its mission is the goal of getting everyone on the registry – and they’re busting down barriers along the way.
That includes cost – two marrow drives scheduled by Team Wagner in Sullivan County will be subsidized by DKMS. If people can pay the $65 it costs for a mouth swab to be analyzed for the registry, they can make out a check.
If they can’t, the organization will cover the fee for the sake of saving a life.
“The lab fee should not keep people from donating,” Wagner stressed. “It’s $65 for each swabbing, and that’s quite a bit of money – especially if you have a family that wants to donate.”
Team Wagner and DKMS are also busting the myths that surround bone marrow donation.
Signing up doesn’t mean you’re committing yourself to something painful, Wagner said.
To start, not everyone on the registry will be called upon to donate. If they are, they’ll still have the opportunity to decline.
But more importantly, those who prove a match and want to help a patient will usually undergo nothing more arduous than a few days of hormone treatments followed by a medical practitioner drawing a few vials of blood.
“It’s not a typically scary thing,” Wagner said.
Since 1987, the NMDP has connected 30,000 patients with matches, people who have agreed to go through the process.
It’s a process Wagner crosses her fingers she’ll one day experience.
“Seventy percent of people who do have a bone marrow transplant do survive,” she said with a wide grin. “I’m looking to be one of the 70 percent.”
But the mother of two college-aged daughters is pragmatic.
“My father always taught us that there’s someone worse off than you,” she said. “In our local community, there might not be a match for me, but there might be a match for someone who’s been waiting longer than I have.”
That’s why Team Wagner has set simultaneous drives for May 15, one at St. George’s Roman Catholic Church in Jeffersonville from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. and the second at Liberty High School from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The goal is to attract as many donors as possible – upping the chances for as many other patients as possible.
Retired from education – she was an English teacher and guidance counselor in three school districts including the former Jeff-Youngsville, Liberty and Sullivan West as well as Sullivan County BOCES – Wagner said she feels as though this is her chance to give back.
“I feel really fortunate that I got the opportunity to work with kids from three schools in the county,” she explained. “Working with kids was such an enjoyable and rewarding experience I feel indebted to the community for sort of lending me their kids!”
Wagner and husband Steve raised daughters Sarah Kate and Andrea in Jeffersonville, and the team putting together the drives has representation from the family’s hometown as well as the spots around the county where Regina taught.
“In lots of ways I feel I owe them, so to see people rallying around . . . it’s like, but I owe YOU guys!” she said with a rueful grin. “But the support is really extremely helpful.”
She focuses on the support, on the celebrations, like Sarah Kate’s upcoming graduation from Brown University, on how proud she is of Andrea who is in her sophomore year at George Washington University, to stay positive about life.
She focuses too on making these drives into events that can change lives.
“You think, if it’s not for you, maybe it’s for someone who hasn’t lived as long. Maybe it’s for someone who has kids who are younger than mine,” Wagner said.
Her friends turn the focus back on her.
“People should show up for Regina because I really think this an opportunity to give for someone who has done so much for other people,” said Linda Argentati of Liberty. “This small act of just giving 10 minutes of your day and potentially saving a life is such an incredible thing to do.”

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