Touched by the desperate searches of two young Montgomery County women to find bone marrow donors, County Executive Sidney Kramer announced a unique program yesterday that encourages county employees to become donors.
Kramer said the county will pay for the lab tests to screen potential donors and give them time off from their jobs if they are chosen. The program would cover 7,000 county workers and aims to add 1,000 names to the national register of potential donors.
"This is so wonderful. I am really excited," said Liz Quam, spokeswoman for the Minnesota-based National Marrow Donor Program, who called the county program unprecedented. Minnesota has a more limited law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for donors.
"It's significant because the burden for finding donors has always fallen on family members whose loved ones have been diagnosed with a fatal blood disease and who have other things to think about and to do," Quam said. "Certainly we will always need patients to remind us of the urgency, but it is nice the search is one step removed."
That same message was sounded by Sylvia Johnson, whose daughter, JoAnne K. Johnson, died from leukemia in February after an unsuccessful attempt to find a bone marrow donor. "The idea of a systematic, cooperative approach is just wonderful. You won't have to depend on crisis and tragedy," Johnson said at a news conference where the program was announced.
Kramer said the idea for the program sprang from a meeting he had with Howard Johnson, who sought Kramer out as his daughter's condition worsened in February.
Kramer said he knew the family as a neighbor when he lived in Silver Spring. And Kramer said he was already sensitive to the situation because he had become caught up in the search by another family -- that of Bethesda resident Allison Atlas -- for a donor.
Kramer said he and his children responded to a drive by Jewish organizations to find a donor for Atlas, suffering from a rare form of leukemia. The best chance of finding a suitable donor is within the patient's own ethnic and racial pool, but health officials say the chances of finding a compatible donor are one in 20,000.
Kramer said he was rejected because of his age but that his children were tested. Atlas's family and friends raised more than $1.5 million to test more than 23,000 people, but no suitable donors were found. Atlas is at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle awaiting a transplant from her mother even though her marrow is not a perfect match.
"These two young women, in such close proximity," Kramer said, "I felt that this is something government should not, could not ignore."
Under the program, run in cooperation with the Marrow Donor Program of the National Institutes of Health, employees will be able to have blood samples drawn by county nurses during their normal work hours. The county will pay the $55 lab fee, and if an employee proves to be a match, the county will provide paid administrative leave. Kramer said he hopes to expand the program to other parts of the county, such as the school system, and that he will seek to get private businesses to adopt the program.
Among those present yesterday as Kramer unveiled the program was Frances Fox, a teacher at Parkland Middle School. Just a week ago, Fox, 51, took some of her vacation time and donated bone marrow for a 2-year-old girl. "I felt I was very special to be a part of this," Fox said. "It was like winning a lottery."
JoAnne Johnson's mother thanked her. "You help to remove some of the mystique . . . . I hope some day you do win the lottery," she said and her voice broke.