The Plea Heard Around the World
by Robin Boon
A parent’s worst nightmare—that’s what Owen Wells (’75) and his wife, Linda, faced in January 2002, when their daughter Kailee was diagnosed with very severe aplastic anemia caused by bone marrow failure, a rare and often fatal disease. Only five years earlier, they had traveled to Changde, Hunan, China, to adopt baby Kailee. Now her best chance at survival was a bone marrow transplant from one of her family members, or at least an Asian marrow donor. To find a match, they leapt into action and, in the process, helped to promote an international bone marrow registration campaign.
Determined to save Kailee and others like her, Owen crisscrossed the country to cities where the Asian population is high, educating the public and registering donors. Westminster participated in a bone marrow drive where more than 200 people registered at a Grizzlies’ game at the E Center. There, Owen had the opportunity to speak to a young woman who was reluctant to join the registry. After a few minutes of conversation with Owen, however, she did register. And fortunately for a teenager in need, the young woman’s bone marrow turned out to be a perfect match.
Owen’s indefatigable spirit and his exposure through major media, including the CBS Early Show, NBC Today Show, CNN Early Morning, and People and Parents magazines (as well as his recently acquired subject matter expertise), won the respect and admiration of thousands who responded with bone marrow registrations and donations.
But Owen went beyond a passionate appeal to save his daughter’s life: “I may not save my daughter, but I am sure not going to let this happen to other people.” His concern for others, not just for Kailee, opened the hearts of many around the world.
More than 300,000 people have been added to the bone marrow registry in China alone, and 4,000 have been added to the registry in the United States. On the first of Linda’s two trips to China, she helped add 10,000 new names within a week, rather than the usual dozen or so. As a result of their efforts, more than 300 lives have been saved. Of course, Owen and Linda humbly, and gratefully, credit the countless individuals who have helped them raise awareness of bone marrow donation across the globe. But their work in educating people to become donors is far from over.
They want people to know that technology has made becoming a donor easier. With a simple swab of the inside of the cheek and completion of a form, you might be a life-saving match for another human being…perhaps the only chance. Each year, 30,000 people in the United States alone are diagnosed with 1 of 70 diseases for which a bone marrow transplant offers the best chance at survival. About one third will find a match. If alternative therapies fail, many of the rest will die. Should you be lucky enough to become a donor, the stem-cell harvesting can now be done by a blood draw from your arm or from your hip under anesthesia. (How the stem cells are harvested depends upon the wishes of the donor and the doctors, as well as the type of illness.) Your body replaces the marrow on its own within a few weeks. Owen has talked with many actual donors, who have all said that to save another human being’s life, they would do it again in a heartbeat.
Fortunately, in September 2005, the day before Owen and Linda were going to China for a third time to search for Kailee’s biological family and to work with the China Marrow Donor Program, Kailee’s donor match, a medical doctor, was found in Beijing. Although the doctor’s wife had just gone into labor in another city, when he learned he was a match, he delayed getting to his wife in order to provide his stem cells for Kailee.
Kailee was on the mend until just recently when a virus ravaged her small body, dropping blood counts to dangerously low levels and creating a situation where she may need yet another stem cell transfusion. However, the setback doesn’t deter Owen, Linda, or Kailee. They know what has to be done. And they continue to keep the awareness of stem cell donation growing by helping organize the annual “Thanks Mom! Marrow Donor Drive” for the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) during Mother’s Day weekend. Linda explained, “Everyone has a mother, whether she’s 18 or 98, and every mother wants a healthy, happy life for her child. What could be more meaningful for your mother than giving the gift of life for another mother’s child?”
For more information on Kailee, her family, and bone marrow donation, visit www.kailee.org, www.kaileegetwells.com, and www.marrow.org.
Owen Wells will be honored with a Distinguished Alumni Award on Saturday, October 7, 2006, during Alumni Homecoming and Parents Weekend. A bone marrow registration drive will be held on campus October 6–8, 2006.