Childhood cancer survivor Brennan Simkins’ 12th birthday was an occasion to help others blow out the candles on another cake.
To celebrate Brennan’s birthday Tuesday, Greenbrier High School senior Ashton Bowles organized a bone marrow donor registration drive to add more people to the global registry that locates donors for patients with life-threatening blood diseases.
Brennan, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia on the eve of his seventh birthday, received four bone marrow transplants in eighteen months. He has been in remission since February 2011.
“Being around him is an inspiration. You realize he has overcome so much,” Bowles said. “So many people here can help.”
Of the four donations, three were from Brennan’s family members. The second donor was a stranger the family has never met in person but communicated with after a one-year moratorium on contacting donors expired.
“Give a gift to a total stranger,” said Brennan’s mother, Tara. “That’s an amazing thing.”
Brennan is in the sixth grade at St. Mary on the Hill Catholic School.
Bowles, who is a baby sitter for the Simkinses, researched the benefits of bone marrow transplants for her senior project. She coordinated the drive at her high school in an effort to add younger people to the registry.
Healthy individuals ages 18 to 44 are eligible to register with Be The Match, a registry operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, said Rod Gunn, an account executive for Be The Match. Marrow transplants are less effective as donors get older, Gunn said.
“Our marrow and our blood stem cells, they age just like anything else in us ages,” he said.
Bowles, with the help of two Georgia Regents University medical students, registered several Greenbrier seniors, teachers and staff members. To register, individuals used a cotton swab to collect cells from inside the cheek. The swab is used to find tissue type that determines a match.
One out of every 540 registered donors matches a patient, Gunn said. More than 10 million people have registered.
Brennan’s second donor registered at a drive when he was in college, Tara Simkins said. Now, the donor is in medical school and has hosted four donor registration drives with his mother, she said.
Local donor drives in honor of Brennan have registered more than 1,500 individuals, said Brennan’s grandmother, Susan Rice.
Rice started organizing drives in hopes of expanding the number of registered minorities, who are underrepresented on the registry. She was inspired to organize them when a pediatric cancer patient, who was black, died after waiting on a match that was never found. The child was the first the Simkinses met when Brennan was admitted to the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.
“Getting on the registry is just a swab, and giving the marrow is really not that painful,” Rice said.
Brennan’s birthday was a celebration of his recovery but also a sad reminder of children that weren’t as fortunate, Simkins said.
“It’s very overwhelming today because I didn’t know how sad I’d be about the children we’ve lost,” she said through tears. “It’s a great day to celebrate his birth and inspire others to give life.”
The Simkins family helped inspire the Press On to Cure Childhood Cancer fundraising campaign, which has raised $1.75 million for pediatric cancer research. Augusta natives Erin and Stephen Chance established the fund in 2006 in honor of their son Patrick, who died Jan. 9, 2012, on his ninth birthday.