Patient turns activist to find marrow donor

Sheldon Mba, a 19-year-old sophomore at N.C. Central University, has one hope to cure his rare blood disorder: a bone marrow transplant. He is taking matters into his own hands, becoming the spokesperson for Do Something's “Give a Spit” campaign and organizing a bone marrow drive.


Imagine, just 19 years old and facing a life-threatening blood disorder. What would you do to sway the odds in your favor?

Sheldon Mba was a high school senior, active in theater, marching banding, and the school dance company, when he was struck with debilitating fatigue. He felt constantly weak despite his physical fitness. He’d be overcome by dizzy spells. Something wasn’t right.

But he had been through a lot in recent months, losing his father unexpectedly. And there he was, juggling physically demanding extra-curricular activities with his schoolwork.

“My first impulse was, ‘I can fix this myself,’” recalls Mba, now a sophomore in the dance program at N.C. Central University.

Mba resolved to get more sleep. He drank copious amounts of water. Nothing helped. He finally confided in his mother about the symptoms, and a subsequent inpatient admission at UNC revealed something neither of them expected: Mba has a rare and life-threatening blood disease called paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), in which the body’s white blood cells attack the red blood cells. The PNH was compounded by a second blood disorder, aplastic anemia, in which the bone marrow doesn't produce enough new blood cells.

In the months since his diagnoses, Mba has adjusted to a new way of life. There are the biweekly doctor visits and several daily medications to keep his blood counts up and boost his immune system. But, as Mba puts it, “That’s all just buying some time.”

A bone marrow transplant could be the key to a cure. As an African American, though, finding the right match will be challenging. The most compatible matches are among people of the same race or ethnic group, but only 7 percent of registered donors are of African descent.

“I can give in to the chance I could die or fight for the chance to really live,” says Mba, who has turned activist in hopes of finding his match and helping others in search of their own matches.

Mba became the spokesperson for Do Something's "Give a Spit" campaign, showing off his dance skills in a public service announcement that attracted more than 1,200 views in its first week on YouTube. He starred in a second video produced by the N.C. Central University, aimed at dispelling many of the myths associated with marrow donation and promoting a campus registry drive. The event added 40 people to the national bone marrow registry.

“It’s not as many as we wanted,” concedes Mba, “but we got 40 new potential donors in the database.”

“I wake up each morning and think of something that makes me smile, and I keep smiling the whole day,” he adds. “Until that match is found, I’ll just keep living each day to the fullest.

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Joining the national bone marrow registry is as simple as four swabs of the cheek. Visit BeTheMatch.org to find a registry drive in your area or to register online.

Mba’s story was recently featured by the Herald-Sun >>

 

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