Bone marrow match makes for surprise twist
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Fifth-grader Jake Amato's life-and-death ordeal already spanned an ocean. Now, a DNA donation given years ago when Farmingdale residents rallied around the boy means hope for another cancer patient in need of a bone-marrow transplant.
Jake, 10, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer, when he was 4. He underwent a successful bone-marrow transplant more than two years ago -- and in December met his donor, Carrie Ann Guse from Düsseldorf, Germany.
That meeting and visit were cause enough for celebration. But there was more: About the same time, one of Jake's former teachers at Northside Elementary School learned that her DNA, given as a donation for the boy in August 2010, matched that of a 58-year-old man with leukemia.
Jake and his battle against cancer were her inspiration, said Hillary Siegel, who teaches fourth grade at Northside and had both Jake and his older brother, Kenny, 12, in her classes.
She had helped organize that community donor drive in 2010, with volunteers having swabs taken from the inside of their cheeks in the search for a genetic match. More than 1,400 people turned out, and a fundraiser brought in nearly $30,000.
When Siegel learned she was a match, she said, "I was ready. A stranger did this for Jake. There was no question. It was basically, 'What do I do now?' "
Siegel, 40, finished the five-day noninvasive donation process a couple of weeks ago. She shared the experience with her class, explaining to them the science behind the way doctors extracted her stem cells for a recipient in need.
When she learned in December that her DNA had matched that of a leukemia patient somewhere in the United States, Siegel said, she immediately went to the Amatos' house with the news.
The Amatos could not believe the timing.
They had just spent a week with Guse, 30, who was considered Jake's "genetic twin" and had flown to New York to meet them. After two years, donors can learn the identity of their DNA match if he or she consents to be identified.
"Meeting Jake and his wonderful family was one of the greatest moments I can imagine," Guse said in an email last week.
Guse left to fly home to Germany on a Friday. It was the next day that Siegel told Jake she was a potential match.
" 'Oh my God. She's a Carrie Ann,' " Jake told his mother, Debbie Amato, 48.
According to the Manhattan-based Delete Blood Cancer, part of the largest bone-marrow donor center in the world, only 30 percent of blood cancer patients find a match within their family. The other 70 percent rely on strangers.
To find matches, cheek cells are collected and the sample is tested for the DNA tissue type. Patients need donors who are a close genetic match.
There are more than 14 million registered bone marrow donors worldwide, but six out of 10 patients never receive the transplant they need, according to the center. The majority of donations do not involve surgery.
Debbie Amato's rallying cry is the company's website: deletebloodcancer.org.
"It is our mission to spread the word for people to swab and become potential donors to save lives, like Carrie Ann did for Jake and Hillary for a person we have yet to meet," she said in an email.
Siegel said the whole process was easy.
"You start to think that roads lead you to somewhere in life," she said, smiling at Jake in the school hallway. "It was like he saved two lives."