Alberta Cancer Foundation

Friends for Life: OneMatch connects donors with the people who need them

Despite the time that has lapsed since their last visit, when Randy Howes and George Burke-Dobie meet there’s an exchange of handshakes, hugs and a few jovial jabs. “How have you been Georgie?” asks Howes.

“Well I’m looking better than you,” replies Burke-Dobie, and so it goes. Some might mistake them for lifelong friends, cousins or maybe even brothers. But these two were brought together by chance, generosity and hope.

BALD-FACED HUMOUR: George Burke-Dobie (left) arrives at the home of his bone marrow donor Randy Howes. And no, you can’t catch baldness from a donor!
Photo Joey Podlubny

In 1988, Howes lost his only brother Lorne to acute myelogenous leukemia. Randy was tested, but was not a match to donate bone marrow that might save Lorne. Several years would pass before health administrators and labs created a public registry for prospective donors. When what was then referred to as the Non-Related Bone Marrow Registry finally came into effect, Howes signed up to honour his brother’s memory.

In November of 1998, Burke-Dobie, then in his early 30s, was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia and needed a transplant. He and Howes were flagged as a match.

Donors between 17 and 35 from ethnically diverse backgrounds are proving to be strong matches.

As if being a match wasn’t exciting enough, Howes was eager when he was told that the bone marrow transplant process would be followed in the media as part of an awareness campaign. Today, that footage from the 1999 procedure might be a little fuzzy but the memory of the day and the events that followed are picture perfect.

“Normally this procedure would have been done under general anesthetic,” says Howes of the bone marrow harvest. “I wanted to make sure I was awake through the whole thing and could speak with the interviewer in the middle of the action,” he says.

As the footage rolls, it shows Howes lying on a table cracking the odd, bad joke while doctors strategically remove the precious bone marrow from his the back of his hip bone. After the procedure he admits to feeling a bit stiff. “But I really didn’t miss a beat,” says Howes.

A year after the procedure, following the mandatory waiting period and with mutual consent, Howes and Burke-Dobie each indicated that they wanted to meet the other party. “At the time, the registry was world-wide and I was thinking, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be amazing to travel to Europe to meet my donor’,” says Burke-Dobie. Little did he know that Howes also lived in Calgary. In fact, their houses were only a few kilometres apart.

“My wife and I thought that this could be our big excuse for travelling across the world,” says Burke-Dobie with a laugh. “Instead we drove a few minutes through the northeast and arrived right here,” he says pointing to the front door. Since receiving the bone marrow donation, Burke-Dobie and his wife have had a couple of kids.

That meeting, though poignant, lacked expressions of dramatic emotion.

“What do you do for a guy who saved your life,” asks Burke-Dobie.

“Wait! I never wanted the sense that you owed me anything,” rebuts Howes.

“You did give me this,” says Burke-Dobie, pointing to the balding patch on the top of his head, swearing it wasn’t there before the life-saving bone marrow transplant.

“Did not,” says Howes.

FIND OUT MORE! Find out what’s involved in becoming a donor at OneMatch.

It Takes All Kinds

Since the time of Randy Howes and George Burke-Dobie’s bone marrow match, numerous medical advancements have taken place and the registry has now become known as OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network.

Following its inception in 2007, OneMatch has gained momentum. “We’ve made huge leaps and bounds in increasing Canadian donor numbers and patient support,” says Olga Pazukha, communications specialist with OneMatch.

“Fewer than 30 per cent of patients who need stem cell transplants find a compatible donor within their own family,” says Pazukha. “Today, 968 Canadians are waiting for a transplant , and 78 of them are from Alberta.

When it comes to the registry, strength isn’t always in numbers. “We are shifting a focus from quantity of donors to quality of donors,” she says. Pazukha explains that physicians and other transplant partners have recognized an optimal donor and OneMatch is working towards targeted recruitment.

“Those between the ages of 17 and 35 who come from an ethnically diverse background are proving to be strong matches,” says Pazukha. She also adds that young men tend to have more stem cells and show less complications post-transplant.

“When we refer to stem cell and bone marrow transplants, we are not talking about something that would be nice to have,” says Dr. Andrew Daley a Calgary based hematology specialist. “We are doing these transplants for people who have absolutely no other option.”

To ensure that the registry is representative of Canada’s growing ethnic diversity, OneMatch has been partnering with groups to raise awareness and recruit donors on its own turf. For example, the Chinese community held simultaneous drives in Chinatowns across Canada this spring, an initiative that was both successful and inspirational to other communities.
In addition to the challenge of finding creative ways to recruit optimal donors, there is also the old stereotype that becoming a donor is painful and inconvenient.

“When people think of bone marrow donation they tend to think back to the procedures of the 1990s. These days the majority, 80 per cent, of transplants are done using stem cells from the bloodstream,” says Dr. Daley.

“It’s a heartwarming process to follow the recipients and share in their gratitude when they’ve received this amazing gift,” says Dr. Daley. “That’s definitely the best part of my job.”