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Md. Students Celebrate Marrow Donor Bill

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page B03

For three long years -- a lifetime for most teenagers -- the girls of Sister to Sister at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia have toiled on a bill that would lower the age of consent for bone marrow donations. Club members helped draft the original legislation, lobbied politicians and testified before the General Assembly.

At first, their bill was deferred. Last year, it died in committee. But yesterday the House gave the bill final approval, following a green light by the Senate last week.

Jade Vaughn, center, celebrates legislative victory with her parents -- Felicia Holmes and Del. Michael L. Vaughn (D-Prince George's). (Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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"Perseverance pays off," said senior Monica Holloway, 17, who worked on the bill from the start. "It would've been really discouraging after all this if they just said, 'No thanks.' "

The bill would allow minors to give bone marrow to non-relatives with permission from their physician and if there is no substantial medical risk to the donor. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) still must sign the legislation, but Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard), who sponsored the bill and represents the girls' district, said she is confident that they have cleared all the hurdles.

"The enthusiasm and commitment of the girls is one thing that keeps me going," she said. "I think they have a really good public policy idea here."

The project began three years ago when Oakland Mills English teacher and club sponsor Joslyn Wolfe read a newspaper article about a 16-year-old in Washington state who wanted to donate bone marrow to a stranger with leukemia who shared his complex ethnic heritage: African American, Hispanic and Korean. The chance of finding a bone marrow match for people of mixed race is slim.

But the teenager soon discovered that state law prohibited those younger than 18 from giving bone marrow to someone who was not a relative. That's when he decided to launch a crusade for the country's first law to lower the age for bone marrow donors.

Washington state adopted the measure in 2000, and Missouri has passed a similar bill. Wolfe decided that pursuing the effort in Maryland would be an ideal project for Sister to Sister, which supports achievement among black teenage girls, and the girls immediately warmed to the task. Little did they expect how long -- and sometimes thorny -- the road would be.

"We were told that," Holloway said. "But I don't think it really hit home."

That is, until the girls were forced to sit through endless debates and hearings on the issue. Their project morphed from a simple service effort to an in-depth lesson in the wheeling and dealing of the General Assembly.

In its first incarnation, the bill sought to lower age of consent for bone marrow donations to 16. The girls presented the idea to Howard County's delegation in the summer of 2003. It was too late to introduce the bill that year, but Bobo assured the students that they had the delegation's support.

Yet when the bill was presented during last year's session, it died in committee. Lawmakers and some health advocates worried that 16-year-olds are too young to make such a decision. The National Marrow Donor Program, which limits donors to those 18 to 60 years old, opposed the bill, citing the medical risks associated with donation.

The girls were determined to see their bill through to the end. When it was reintroduced this session, the House Health and Government Operations Committee took out specific references to minors and instead required that all donors, regardless of age, have a doctor's approval. Parental consent for minors is implied, Bobo said.

The end result was not exactly what the girls had envisioned. But it passed the House and the Senate unanimously.

"I think it makes sense," said senior Jade Vaughn, 18, whose father is Del. Michael L. Vaughn (D-Prince George's). "If that's what it would've taken for it to pass, that's fine with us."

The girls said their three-year journey has taught them a lot, from writing and research skills to how to give testimony. But if there's one lesson that they've mastered, it is how to be diplomatic.

"People's lives are saved either way," Holloway said. "So it doesn't matter that much."

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