Bone marrow drive for youth with sickle cell anemia brings out Va. community

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By Sarah Lane
Thursday, March 10, 2011

Xavier Williams is like most third-grade boys. He plays video games and wants to be a soccer, football or basketball player when he grows up.

Unlike his classmates at Henderson Elementary School in Dumfries, however, the quiet 8-year-old with a bright smile suffers from sickle cell anemia, a painful genetic disorder. After years of medications, more than 30 blood transfusions and surgeries, Xavier's hope rests on finding a bone marrow donor.

"There's a very small chance of finding a match, so the more we get the word out, the better," his mother, Tiffany Williams, said.

On March 2, members of the community gathered in the art room at the Montclair school to participate in a bone marrow drive in the hopes of being a match for Xavier.

Sickle cell anemia occurs when red blood cells form an abnormal crescent - or sickle - shape that can get stuck in blood vessels, slowing or blocking the flow of blood and oxygen to parts of the body. The disease is most commonly found in people of African, South or Central American, Caribbean, Middle Eastern or Indian descent, according to the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America. About 70,000 to 100,000 people in the United States have the disease, according to the organization's Web site.

"It's not that well known how critical this disease is," said Peter Balogun, Xavier's father. "He's really been a tough guy through all the process of getting sick. I think it's in all of us to live. We're on this earth to provide a life force, so it's just in him to push for life."

Pam Johnson, the school's nurse, has worked with Xavier's family since she joined Henderson more than two years ago. She coordinated the drive in conjunction with Be the Match, a national nonprofit organization that maintains a donor registry. Word about the drive was spread through fliers, Facebook, the school's Web site and the community property owner's association Web site.

"Henderson is a big family school. This community in general, Montclair, they just take care of themselves. They reach out to each other. It's an amazing community to live in," Johnson said.

On the day of the event, 90 people registered to be donors by filling out a form, confirming eligibility with a representative from Be the Match and then taking four cheek swabs. Fifty people registering is considered a success by Be The Match standards.

"I'm so excited about the turnout," Johnson said. "I think people have a good heart, and when they hear that there's a need, they want to do it. They want to help."

To see all the people come out to support him, Xavier said, "it feels so good."

Denise Pennington, a teacher's assistant at Henderson, attended the drive for Xavier. She said she joined the registry because she has a family member who suffers from sickle cell. "I've seen Xavier get sick at school. I know the pain that the kids go through."

For information about how to register to be a bone marrow donor, visit Be the Match at www.marrow.org. To learn about sickle cell anemia, visit www.sicklecelldisease.org.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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