AIKEN - Without a bone marrow transplant, Robbie Culbreath will soon die.
A former Navy engineer who moved up in the ranks, Mr. Culbreath is now a student waiting tables to offset the cost of a degree in physics. The 26-year-old Marietta, Ga., man is depending on the kindness of strangers to save his life.
Diagnosed in 1995 with chronic myelogenous leukemia - a cancer that attacks bone marrow - the Aiken native has been unable to find a bone marrow donor. Doctors have been searching the national registry monthly for two years with no success.
None of his immediate family, the most likely donor candidates, were found to be suitable marrow matches.
In an effort to save their son's life, Bob and Jenny Culbreath, who live in Aiken, are issuing a challenge to local residents.
"Prove to us that you are indeed an All-America city. Be a part of saving this child's life," Mrs. Culbreath said.
Area residents will have a chance next Friday to sign up as bone marrow or blood donors at a registration drive in Mr. Culbreath's honor. Event organizers hope to add at least 300 potential donors to the 2.5 million already on the American Red Cross' national list.
"There aren't always success stories. But by participating you are giving that patient a chance at hope, the chance at life," said Susan Cook, marrow donor consultant for South Carolina.
The drive will be from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the H. Odell Weeks Center on Whiskey Road. At Friday's event, the Red Cross will test and register potential donors for the national bone marrow registry. Participants must be at least 18 and in good health. Each test normally costs $60 but through corporate sponsors, the committee has raised enough money for nearly 200 people to be tested free of charge.
But more sponsors are needed.
"I know that finding a match for Robbie at this event is slim, but this is not just about Robbie," Mrs. Culbreath said. "I know there are other parents out there going through the same hell that I'm suffering. And if we find a donor for another family, our efforts will not have been in vain.
"But when we do find a match for our son, all of Aiken will know it," she said.
Mr. Culbreath was a waiter, working his way through Polytechnic State in Marietta, Ga., when he learned of his illness. He wants the drive to be about education and awareness, not thrusting himself in the limelight.
"I'm not concerned about people learning about me," he said, "but learning about the disease itself."
Most of all, Mr. Culbreath wants to squash fears many people have about being a bone marrow donor.
"First of all, it's not painful," said Donna Nichols, who recently donated marrow to a 21-year-old leukemia patient. "To be tested, the process is just like giving blood."
When Mrs. Nichols learned that her marrow was matched with a patient, "it was as if I was connected to her by some sort of umbilical cord," she said. "It was the closest bond anyone could feel. The closest feeling to it is like having a child."
Two weeks after donating her marrow, Mrs. Nichols' patient died.
"But her family knew they had found the best possible match," said Mrs. Nichols, the mother of triplets. "They were left knowing that they had given her a second chance at life and they had done everything in their power to give her hope. And if given the chance to do it over again, I would."