Brother of woman with rare blood cancer hopes to increase donor registry at two events this week

Brother of woman with rare blood cancer hopes to increase donor registry at two events this week
Updated: Apr. 24, 2023 at 11:20 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - When Mary Barto was told last October that she had myelodysplastic syndromes, she was also told her chances for survival were slim without a stem cell transplant.

MDS is a rare type of blood cancer. Barto, who is the wife of Jack Barto, the former CEO of New Hanover Regional Medical Center, immediately tried to find a match.

“All the family was tested,” her brother Dee Dees said. “None of us were a match, which is pretty common in this process.”

Barto’s only option was to go into the international database for stem cell donors.

“Which is 39 million people,” Dees said. “And out of 39 million people, Mary matched with a woman in Germany.”

That was the good news. The bad news is the transplant has been delayed.

“Because of ongoing strikes in Germany and other logistics, the transplant has been delayed twice and its caused health issues for Mary,” Dees said.

While his sister waits for the lifesaving transplant, Dees is on a mission to get more people signed up on the donor registry. He’s helped organize three “Be the Match” donor drives in Wilmington this week. Be the Match Registry is part of a nonprofit organization called the National Marrow Donor Program founded in 1986. Be the Match connects patients with donors for a lifesaving bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant.

Registering is easy. It’s a simple swab inside the mouth. Dees says it’s so important for everyone to understand that getting a blood cancer diagnosis can happen to anyone at anytime and the chances of survival could be slim to none, especially among African Americans.

“African Americans have a 30 percent chance of finding a match, so what we really want to do is grow not only the number of donors but the diversity of the database as well,” said Dees.

Another challenge to the database—donors must be between the ages of 18 to 40. Dees says they are reaching out to organizations and companies with people who fall in that age group.

“We had an event at nCino. It was closed to the public today, but it was a fabulous event and we met a lot of people in that age group and it only takes one to save someone’s life.”

There are two other events this week, though, that are completely open to the public. On Tuesday, April 25, there will be a Be The Match event at Cape Fear Community College’s Union Station from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then on Wednesday, April 26, Dees and other volunteers will host a Be the Match event at UNCW’s Fisher University Union from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Dees is hopeful his sister Mary’s transplant will happen. The procedure will be done at Duke Hospital once the donor’s stem cells are flown in from Germany.

“Mary is an amazing light and her spirit is so strong,” Dees said. “She cares deeply for others and she means the world to me. I know if the roles were changed, she’d do the same thing. In the end, if these save just one life — then it’s all worth it!”

"I thought it would be no big deal to get a donor ... what we found out was that out of 39 million people, only one person was a match for me."