This B.C. dad is in search of a special Father’s Day gift: A stem-cell donor

Roxanne Regan-Elliott / Times Colonist

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Jeremy Chow and daughters, Maile, 10 and Jayla, 8.

Jeremy was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in November 2018, after experiencing chest pain that wouldn’t go away.

A stem-cell transplant is the best treatment option, so doctors put Jeremy on the transplant list right away.

The problem is that Jeremy’s mixed heritage — he’s half Chinese and half British Caucasian — is proving impossible to find a match for.

Searches through Canadian and international stem-cell donor registries failed to turn up a match.

He and his wife, Evelyn Chow, are holding a stem-cell drive on Sunday, as part of Victoria’s Car Free YYJ event on Douglas Street. They’re on a mission to improve the diversity of registered stem-cell donors.

Stem cells are immature cells that are able to develop into any cell that’s present in the bloodstream. Stem-cell donors are matched to patients through DNA markers found on white blood cells. The markers, called human leukocyte antigens, are inherited from both parents. People are more likely to match with donors who share their ethnic background.

Jeremy is in remission now, after undergoing several bouts of chemotherapy at Vancouver General Hospital, but he remains on the transplant list. His family wants to raise awareness about the need for donors from diverse ethnic backgrounds and about how easy the donation process can be. Jeremy is one of 26 patients of mixed ethnicity in Canada who are unable to find a donor match.

“It’s great that he’s in remission and we’re thankful that he responded well to treatment, but, you know, the fact [is] that there’s a chance of relapse, and if this returns, the stem-cell transplant is vital,” Evelyn said.

Evelyn said people are often intimidated by what they think is an invasive and painful procedure, but new technology has made donating easier.

“It’s just as if you were giving blood through the arm. They extract the stem cells and the remaining blood actually gets returned to you,” she said, noting about 80 per cent of stem-cell donations happen through this method.

The remaining donations require a surgical procedure to withdraw stem cells from bone marrow while donors are under anesthesia.

Evelyn and her friends have held three stem-cell drives in Vancouver and still haven’t found a match for her husband.

Ironically, Jeremy had registered to be a donor years ago after seeing a commercial asking for donors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, specifically of Asian heritage. “If I can help somebody, by doing nothing, basically … then I was all for it,” said Jeremy, noting he had never been called upon to donate.

The Victoria Chinatown Lions Club is sponsoring a tent near city hall for this weekend’s stem-cell drive. Anyone between the ages of 17 to 35 who in good health and interested in becoming a donor can visit the tent to get a cheek swab and fill out a questionnaire. You can also register online through Canadian Blood Services at blood.ca.

The tent will be registering potential donors from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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The Times Colonist is the oldest daily newspaper in Western Canada. It was created by the 1980 merger of the British Colonist, which started in 1858, and the Victoria Daily Times, which began publishing in 1884. The newspaper has chronicled the history of Victoria and Vancouver Island from the gold rush days of the 1850s to Victoria's present status as a thriving capital city and an international tourist destination.