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‘Be the Match’ registry could save lives

By Steve Phillips, The Park Record
Park City residents could help Billie Harsch who needs a stem-cell transplant.
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Longtime Parkite Billie Harsch and former resident Andy Washington have something in common, something they wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. They both have cancer and they both need stem-cell transplants.

The community has responded in typical fashion. Last week the Park City Medical Center announced a "Be The Match" registry drive, matching cancer patients with genetically matching stem-cell and bone marrow donors. The event, in part organized and publicized by a local Boy Scout, will be held at the Park City Medical Center, 900 Round Valley Drive near Quinn’s Junction, on Saturday, June 9, from 3 to 7 p.m. Stem-cell or bone-marrow transplants are essential to the long-term survival of patients suffering from blood and lymph system cancers such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia.

Be The Match foundation, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn., is the nexus for those who need such transplants. Over the past 25 years the nonprofit international organization has registered over 10 million potential donors worldwide, resulting in thousands of cancer cures. Registration is simple and quick, involving nothing more than some paperwork and a cheek swab to collect saliva. The process takes only a few minutes.

Area residents between the ages of 18 and 44 are eligible to register with Be The Match. Everyone who registers will receive a two-for-one dinner at the Center’s Silver King Café. Potential donors who can’t attend the event may still register by going to http://www.marrow.org and clicking on "sign the registry." Those over age 44, whose bone marrow is not optimum for transplants, may still help by making a donation at the website.

The national registry and local drive could be a lifeline for Billie and Jim Harsch, a veteran real estate team in Park City, who celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary last month at the Huntsman Cancer Center. A few weeks earlier, when Billie’s "bad case of the flu" wasn’t responding to treatment, her doctor referred her to the Huntsman for testing, where their worst fears were confirmed. She was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive cancer of the blood and lymph system. Now, after shaving her head and enduring several days of potent chemotherapy, she’s in remission. That’s the good news. The bad news: The cancer will return. That’s the nature of the disease. She needs a stem-cell transplant in order to survive.

"It’s often assumed that close family members are the best matches for stem-cell transplants, but that’s not true. About 75 percent of matches come from outside the family," said Trina Brajkovich, an account executive with the Be The Match foundation. Brajkovich will be on hand at the June 9 event. The Huntsman Center bone marrow transplant team has begun its own search for suitable donors for Harsch. It’s easier said than done.

Just ask Andy Washington in Indianapolis, Ind., a former Parkite who has been battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma for almost two years. After months of radiation and chemotherapy treatments and one failed stem-cell transplant using his own cells, the 29-year-old Park City High School graduate desperately needs another transplant. But matches aren’t easy to find. Once a potential donor registers, there’s only one chance in 540 that he or she will be contacted for further testing.

Jane and Mike Washington, Andy’s parents and longtime Park City residents, are coping with their son’s condition as best they can. "You just go down a path, not knowing where it will end," said Mrs. Washington. "Finding a stem-cell match in the local community would be such an incredible gift," she says, "but we know there are many gravely people out there, like Billie, with the same need and the same hope who many also benefit from this local drive."

Being a stem-cell transplant donor is only slightly more complicated than the initial swab test. Blood is drawn, put in a centrifuge to extract the stem cells and returned to the donor. Donors may be sore or exhibit flu-like symptoms for a few days after the procedure. For most, it’s a small price to pay.

Lindsey Van, the Park City-based world-champion ski jumper, has twice been a stem-cell donor. When her former roommate, Nigerian skeleton athlete Seun Adebiyi, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011 and needed a stem-cell transplant, Van did not hesitate. "I didn’t expect it, but I wasn’t hesitant," she said. "It was a very easy choice for me. I’d want someone to do it for me or my family. Of course, it’s a rigorous process, but if I can help save a life, I’m going to make that decision every single time."

When Nick Miller, a junior at Park City High School and a Boy Scout, learned about Andy Washington’s plight, he didn’t hesitate either. Miller, an Eagle Scout candidate, decided his Eagle project would be to help organize and publicize the Park City Be The Match registry drive and help get people out to sign up. He created and is distributing a flyer around town announcing the June 9 event.

"Just like me, Andy grew up here and graduated from Park City High. Just like me, he worked hard to gain the rank of Eagle Scout. I want to do what I can to help Andy and others," said Miller.

Billie Harsch will hopefully be coming home from the Huntsman next week. Jim, her husband, has been hard at work preparing their house for her return. "I need to get the place sanitized to minimize chances for other infections. That includes cleaning the air ducts and shampooing the carpets," he said. "She’ll be tested frequently at Huntsman and may need more chemotherapy treatments while we’re waiting for a match. Once she gets the transplant, the first 100 days are critical to make sure there is no rejection."

When Harsch found out she’d need chemotherapy, she promptly had her head shaved. "I wanted to get it over with since I knew it was going to fall out anyway," she said. Surrounded by longtime Park City friends Dee Macaluso, Annette Velarde and Stacy Dymalski, and accompanied by much laughter, she videotaped the shave job and posted it on youtube and at their website, http://www.unlockparkcity.com

Harsch, a longtime area realtor with Keller-Williams, says she’s been overwhelmed by the support of the Park City community. "People ask me what they can do and I tell them, get on the Be The Match registry and list your house with me, or at least get me a referral." More laughter ensued.

Jan Wilking, former owner and publisher of The Park Record, knows what they’re going through. Diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells, eight months ago, the longtime Parkite underwent heavy chemotherapy and a successful stem-cell transplant last winter.

"We all go through difficult times in life and this is just my time. I’m trying to learn what I can from the experience," he said. "With cancer, you live with a lot of uncertainty. I’ve been very much focused on taking it one day at a time. I still feel I’m a very fortunate man. I keep a positive attitude, which I think is very important."

Hopefully nearing full recovery, he makes weekly visits to the Huntsman Cancer Center for ongoing treatments. "I’ve had an excellent experience there. We’re really lucky to have them in Salt Lake, so near to Park City," he said.

Wilking has followed Washington’s situation very closely. "He’s tried so many things. I hope it works this time. I wish both him and Billie the very best.

Both Harsch and Washington hope to find matches and get their transplants within the next few months. Harsch will receive her life-giving transplant at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Washington will undergo the procedure at the Fred Hutchinson Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, an institution that has pioneered the transplant protocol.

Ultimately it’s a race against time but, for now, it’s a waiting game.


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