Alessandra's marrow donation combats child's autoimmune disorder
Having moved from Peru to the U.S. at age four, Alessandra did not know about the bone marrow registry until she became a student at Boston College. It was 2012, her freshman year, when she learned about it from one of Gift of Life’s first campus ambassadors, Michael Padulsky. At the time, he was a volunteer running his first drive with an on-campus cancer support group. Alessandra happened to be in the dining area where the drive was held, the day before Halloween, and swabbed before leaving.
Although it was spur-of-the-moment, Alessandra joined Gift of Life’s registry wholeheartedly and willingly. She has always been the type of person who seizes every opportunity to do good. The day she swabbed, she told her mom about it and mentioned what she had learned about the registry. In the moment, her mom did not think too much of it, and for a long time, neither did Alessandra. That is, until three years later, when she was identified as a match for a little boy with a rare autoimmune disorder.
True to her sunny disposition, Alessandra was thrilled upon hearing the news. However, she was unsure how her mom would react and ended up keeping this information to herself after the initial call. Once she was confirmed as the perfect match for the little boy, Alessandra decided it was time to tell her parents. Being unfamiliar with the specifics of bone marrow donation, Alessandra’s mother initially discouraged her daughter. However, Alessandra’s persistence to help led to her mother researching the procedure in-depth and speaking to staff at Gift of Life in order to understand and familiarize herself with the process.
In early March, Alessandra was admitted into the Dana Farber Cancer Institute for her bone marrow collection. Alec Burkin, project manager at Gift of Life and himself a stem cell donor, was by her side and met both of Alessandra’s parents prior to the collection. Coincidentally, the collection date aligned with Alessandra’s father’s birthday. “I get to see my daughter in pain on my birthday,” he joked, obviously glad to spend the day with Alessandra but also a bit wary.
“Bridging that gap is what we’re responsible for,” said Alec. “We believe wholeheartedly in what we do and in the safety of the procedure.” He spent the day reassuring Alessandra’s parents and establishing rapport, which didn’t prove too challenging for the Boston College alumnus.
However, Alec also empathized with Alessandra’s parents: “Something like bone marrow donation is pretty counterintuitive to the role of a parent. Most parents would do anything to protect their child. Having to watch Alessandra voluntarily admit herself into a hospital could not have been easy.” As a result of navigating and alleviating the parents’ apprehension, Alec gained insight into how cultural differences might influence a prospective donor. The family is originally from Peru, where they don’t have a bone marrow registry and are only really exposed to negative depictions of the procedure. Thus, the issue extends beyond Alessandra’s family. As an ethnic minority, Latinos are significantly underrepresented in the registry. In fact, 55% of Latinos will not find a matching donor.
In the end, Alessandra’s collection went smoothly, and the doctors reported that she woke up smiling. Alessandra was able to generate a lot more cells than they needed for the patient, which she was really excited and relieved about. “I hope this gives the child an even better chance at recovering,” she said. Alessandra wishes her recipient the best; she plans to make anonymous contact with his family as soon as she can and hopes to meet her recipient one day.
Currently a senior, Alessandra is poised to graduate with a bachelor’s in English at the end of this semester. She has already applied and been accepted to a number of law schools.