Dentist, patient spark Michigan bone marrow drive

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — As a dentist, Dr. Steve Conlon might seem an unlikely person to lead a charge to save people from leukemia.

But the Grand Rapids dentist is doing just that through a campaign to register bone marrow donors during routine dental visits.

He is the leading force behind the “Take a Bite Out of Cancer” campaign, an effort held in November at dentist offices throughout Michigan. It’s the second year for the statewide effort — and Conlon hopes to see the event continue and eventually spread nationwide.

“Ultimately, I hope it grows way out of my control,” he told The Grand Rapids Press (http://bit.ly/1aPsYEG ).

Why would a dentist get involved in the bone marrow registry?

“Because I see healthy people between the ages of 18 and 54 — and that’s the very age of the population of people they want to become involved,” Conlon said.

Bone marrow transplants are life-saving treatment for patients with leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anemia and other life-threatening diseases, according to Be the Match registry.

Conlon’s interest in helping people in need of a bone marrow transplant is inspired by two people. One is his father-in-law, Dr. George Thomas Bowles, a dentist who died seven years ago of acute myelogeneous leukemia. Bowles did not live long enough to get a transplant.

The other is a longtime patient, Joel Carter. In 2007, Carter was diagnosed with AML and needed a transplant. Fortunately, he found a match on the international registry — with a 35-year-old woman who lives in another country.

After he recovered, Carter, then a payroll clerk with the Grand Rapids Police Department, became involved in bone-marrow donor registration drives. Conlon helped out at some events.

“It was kind of an aha moment for him as he was watching them swab the cheeks of those people,” Carter said.

Conlon realized the procedure could easily be done at a dentist’s office. It would be more convenient and less expensive than organizing a big, community-wide event. He held a drive at his office, and it went so well, he thought it could be expanded to other practices.

In 2012, the statewide first dentist-office bone marrow registration drive was held, co-sponsored by the Michigan Dental Association and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Michigan. Delete Blood Cancer, a bone marrow donor center, also became involved.

More than 2,500 people were registered. Five were matched with people in need of transplants.

The numbers aren’t in yet for this year’s drive, but Conlon hopes more dentists and patients take part. He has found that if dentists “see something they can easily add to their practice, they are very happy to participate.”

The campaign provides swab kits at no charge to dentists. Patients swab their own cheeks and deposit the swab in the kit, which is mailed to the lab.

“It’s the perfect scenario to get it done,” Carter says.

He appreciates his dentist’s effort to help others find a donor. A wide pool of potential donors is important because a person’s best chance of finding a match is with someone of similar ancestry.

According to Be the Match, minority donors are particularly needed on the registry. The chance of finding a match is 93 percent for whites, 82 percent of American Indians, 73 percent for Asians, 72 percent for Hispanics and 66 percent for African Americans.

“People are dying now because they can’t find a match,” Carter said. “The person who could be a match for them is walking down the street and they have no idea they could save a life.”

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Grand Rapids Press.

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