Firefighters become stem cell donors

Over 130 firefighters have signed up to be donors and placed on the Sunflower Fund registry.

City firefighters ended their two-and-a-half-month partnership with The Sunflower Fund with a final push to get as many stem-cell donors as possible to register with the organisation.

About 30 firefighters attended a discussion at Milnerton fire station on Monday, about the importance of being a blood and stem-cell donor.

This initiative started in November last year and, to date, more than 130 City firemen and women have been placed on The Sunflower Fund’s registry.

Charlene van Wyk, head of the donor centre at The Sunflower Fund, said finding suitable and committed donors was a very difficult process.

“Some people sign up to be donors and we keep their DNA in our system but when the time comes for them to donate their stem cells, they bail.

Last year, we had a 30-year-old woman who fell ill and was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukaemia. In our search, we found two local possible donors whom we placed in our system. When the time came for when she needed stem cells, the donors had changed their minds. The woman later passed away before we had identified another donor in India,” she said.

The chances of finding a genetic twin are 1 in 100 000 and sometimes that twin could be halfway across the world.

Those applying to be stem-cell donors must be between 18 and 50.

“You have to have a weight of 50kg or more and have a body mass index of below 40,” said The Sunflower Fund’s Bonginkosi Kume. “If you take anti-depressants, you can’t be on more than one kind of anti-depressant. You can’t donate if you’ve been pregnant or had a baby in the past year. If you have had an operation because of a fracture in your long bones and if you had eczema, you can’t be a donor,” he said.

Ms Van Wyk said stem-cell donors undergo an initial test in which a DNA sample is taken.

“What the doctors are looking for is the patient’s genetic twin. The lab sends the results of the data of the sample to us and we then place it in our registry. When a patient becomes in need of a stem-cell transplant, we then contact the potential donor and if he or she is still committed, then we can start making arrangements for the procedure.”

In most cases, the patient’s genetic twin is not a member of his or her family. Ms Van Wyk said that in around 75% of cases, the genetic twin was a complete stranger.

The whole procedure – everything from the DNA swab to the transplant – comes at no cost to the donor. The Sunflower Fund raises money for it from fund-raisers.

James Seymour, who has been a firefighter for 35 years, said he found his passion for helping others as a youngster when he worked as a South African Red Cross Society first aider.

“I joined the fire service because I was physically fit at the time and did weightlifting and had a passion for helping my community.”

Another firefighter, Grant Isaacs, said he was prepared to be a donor if it meant he had a chance to save someone’s life.

“This is one of the reasons I joined the fire services. This is a great initiative that was started by The Sunflower Fund and something I can stand behind. It could be me that needs this in the future.”

Eugene Cronje also signed up to be a stem-cell donor. He already donates blood.

“I look at it like this: what if sometime in the future, one of my children, needs this kind of help from a stranger? I mean it doesn’t cost anything, it doesn’t hurt to help another person like this. I would encourage people to join initiatives like this because one day you or someone you know might need this,” he said.

The Fire and Rescue Service also showed off its pink fire engine, named HOPE, which stands for Help Our People Everywhere.