Dr. Lam Do says his son, Luke's, leukemia struck overnight. “We didn't even think he was sick. We got some routine blood test results on a Friday and he was an in-patient by Saturday night,” Do remembers. Luke was just 18 months.
Do's wife, Sarah, was nine months pregnant at the time and Luke's baby sister was born one week after he was admitted to the hospital. Luke was diagnosed with juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia, a rare childhood leukemia. The San Jose, CA-based family named the new baby Christine Hope—with the hope that her bone marrow would be a match for her brother. Unfortunately, the match wasn't good enough for a bone marrow transplant—the only cure for Luke's disease.
“We knew we had to find a donor in the registry and the odds were really slim,” Dr. Do says.
In 1989, Asian Americans in the National Bone Marrow Program registry numbered just 123. Today, with the help of nonprofit organizations like the Asian American Donor Program, there are some 38,493 Asian Americans in the registry. But for Luke, whose father is Vietnamese and mother is Japanese, Irish and English—finding a match was even more difficult. Only two percent of those who list their ancestry with the National Marrow Donor Program are multiracial.
Miraculously, just six months after Luke was diagnosed, a match was found in third-generation Japanese American Randall Yamanaka, a Seattle police officer. Yamanaka made headlines when his request for paid leave time for the donation process was denied by the city. Yamanaka fought the decision and when Governor Gary Locke heard about the struggle, he stepped in to change the laws in Washington State.
But even with a match, Luke's body tried its best to reject the foreign bone marrow. He spent the next three months in the hospital and nearly died three times. “The transplant was like him being born again,” Do says. “He lost everything and slowly came back.”
Today, Luke is five years old. “As each birthday comes, it's another milestone,” Dr. Do says. “Finding the donor was like hitting the lottery. It is five million to one. It is sad because there are not enough Asians and ethnic minorities in the registry. It is just a lack of awareness. Luke is still here because someone signed up and registered.” —Neelanjana Banerjee
Contact the Oakland, CA-based Asian American Donor Program at
800.59.DONOR to find out how to register or to hold a donor drive in your area.