Edmonton family holds swab event in Calgary to find stem cell donor

Three sisters from Edmonton held a special gathering on Sunday to help locate a very special person that could hold the key to save their brother’s life.

Back in January, Bille Nguyen was diagnosed with a rare type of blood cancer that specialists say could be helped through a special treatment using a stem cell donation.

The problem is that because Nguyen is Asian, there aren’t enough donors in the national registry to match his genetic makeup to.

Susan, Bille’s sister, says he’s just finishing up with his sixth round of chemotherapy and, in order for him to have the best chance of beating his disease, the time is now to find a donor.

That’s why the family has organized a widespread search to find a match.

The swab test is simple, Susan says, but it means life or death for her brother.

“Having the support and people come out, we hope that we might find in this group a match.”

The Nguyens started this journey when they learned that the majority of donors on the national registry are Caucasian (68 percent) while the remaining 32 percent are from other ancestries.

Specialists say that usually 25 percent of people that need stem cell transplants find donors in their family but the other 75 percent need to go through the registry.

The Nguyens say Bille is in the latter group and with Vietnamese and Chinese donors vastly unrepresented in that list, it will be difficult.

Susan says that the search is also to raise awareness at the same time as saving her brother’s life.

“This problem exists and it’s going to help not only my brother. It’s going to help someone else out there and I believe that in this group and maybe the Edmonton one, maybe we’ve saved someone else’s life that’s been waiting for a match.”

If a match isn’t found before the end of the current round of chemotherapy, then Bille will need to undergo a seventh round of the treatment and that’s something the family wants to try and avoid.

“The more chemotherapy you do, the harder it is on your organs,” Susan says.

No matter what happens, Susan says her family will continue their mission of raising awareness about how poorly other ethnicities are represented on donor lists.

“When we found this out, we never knew of this before and most people don’t either. We just want people to know that it can happen to them. I ask everybody the question, if it was your brother, your sister, your dad or your mom, how far would you hope for a stranger to go for your family.”

One of those new donors in Calgary is Benny Luong and he says that he came out because he wanted to help the Vietnamese community and that it would be an awesome feeling to save someone’s life.

“I really hope that I could.”

Jonathan Ho says his family is close with the Nguyens and he came out after seeing the story posted online.

“I talked to my mom and I talked to my sister and I signed up on one match. I talked to Shelly and then she told me to come to the drive.”

Ho says the test is easy.

“A couple swabs and then you’re done. How much more time is it in your day?”

He wants to tell people that it doesn’t hurt to try and help people in need.

Edmonton’s drive, earlier this month, had about 800 people sign up.

The drive on Sunday, at the Calgary Vietnamese Canadian Association on 54 Street S.E. runs until 7:00 p.m.

You can find out more information about the family’s fight on their website, MatchforBille.

(With files from Brenna Rose)

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