The chance to be a hero

While most teenagers in the small East Coast town of Kawerau were worrying about the school ball and their next rugby game, 16-year-old Mikaera was fighting an aggressive form of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia.

Diagnosed in May 2014, the teenager underwent several months of treatment including multiple rounds of chemotherapy, before being dealt with a second blow; he would need a bone marrow transplant. Mikaera‘s immediate family all stepped up to be tested for donation, but none of them were a suitable match.

Further research by the New Zealand Bone Marrow Donor Registry (NZBMDR) discovered there was no one on any register in the world who was a match to Mikaera.  Ethnicity plays a key part in finding a suitable bone marrow donor. The chances of finding an exact match for Mikaera were made even smaller by a shortage of male donors of Maori, Pacific Island and other NZ ethnic minority group ancestry.

“It was a hugely overwhelming time for us,” says his mum Maakere. “Dealing with Mikaera’s diagnosis was enough, but then we just had to wait.”

Mikaera and whanauWhile the family were based at Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland, the tight knit community were rallying together back at home to help search for a bone marrow donor. In order to donate bone marrow, you must already be a blood donor and pass a medical check to make sure you are fit and healthy. The community organised the mobile donor centre to come to the small town and achieved over 100 whole blood donations in the effort to find a match. Information was shared through the ‘Support Mikaera’s Journey’ Facebook page and received huge support.

Luckily Mikaera didn’t have to wait for too long, when Wellington man and blood donor, Richard, was found to be a potential match. Having signed up to the NZBMDR in the 1990’s well before DNA typing was the norm; Richard did not appear in initial searches. But when asked by the NZ Blood Service to come in for a medical to check his compatibility, he happily agreed to help the then unknown boy. It wasn’t until sometime later they discovered the family connection; Richard is Mikaera’s uncle on his father’s side.

Richard describes it as a blessing to be the only donor in the world who is a match and to be able to help his nephew. “Even before I knew it was Mikaera who would receive my donation, I was happy to help. It is the ultimate gift to be able to save someone else’s life,” he says.

“We were just blown away,” says Maakere. “Usually donors and recipients never meet each other, but with the small amount of information we each had we eventually put two-and-two together.” 

Mikaera received his successful bone marrow transplant in October 2014 and is on the slow road to recovery. He also received 52 units of red cells, 45 units of platelets and blood products.   The family has learnt to take each day as it comes and appreciate the small victories he has.

While Maakere admits the family were not blood donors before her son’s diagnosis, they regularly donate blood now. When asked what she would say to those who are considering blood donation, she encourages everyone to make it a priority in their life, because you never know when you might need the favour returned.

“This time it was our son, but next time it could be your son, or brother, sister, cousin. This is your chance to be someone else’s hero,” says Maakere.

Richard is quick to agree. “It is not a question of why would you donate. It is a question of why wouldn’t you?” he says.

If you are male and your ancestors were Maori, Pacific Island or any other NZ ethnic minority group, please consider joining the Registry. With your support, more patients can access the treatment they so desperately need.

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