Rare stem cell match needed for biracial Fremd alum

  • Aaron Lee, a Fremd alum who grew up in Inverness, is battling Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma and needs a stem cell transplant, but being biracial makes it harder to find a match.

    Aaron Lee, a Fremd alum who grew up in Inverness, is battling Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma and needs a stem cell transplant, but being biracial makes it harder to find a match. courtesy of the Lee family

  • Aaron Lee, center, with his parents Al and Naomi Lee of Inverness, needs a stem cell transplant to fight Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma. "We're not asking people to do it just for Aaron," Naomi Lee said. "We hope that by donating, you can help many other people, too."

    Aaron Lee, center, with his parents Al and Naomi Lee of Inverness, needs a stem cell transplant to fight Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma. "We're not asking people to do it just for Aaron," Naomi Lee said. "We hope that by donating, you can help many other people, too." courtesy of the Lee family

  • Fremd alumnus Aaron Lee, who grew up in Inverness, is battling Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma and needs a stem cell transplant. A stem cell donation drive will be held this weekend in Hoffman Estates.

    Fremd alumnus Aaron Lee, who grew up in Inverness, is battling Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma and needs a stem cell transplant. A stem cell donation drive will be held this weekend in Hoffman Estates. courtesy of the Lee family

  • Aaron Lee, a Fremd graduate who grew up in Inverness, needs a stem cell transplant. Fellow Fremd alumni and Los Angeles residents Constance Parng, Albert Kim and Caitlin Barlow have provided a support system while he battles Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

    Aaron Lee, a Fremd graduate who grew up in Inverness, needs a stem cell transplant. Fellow Fremd alumni and Los Angeles residents Constance Parng, Albert Kim and Caitlin Barlow have provided a support system while he battles Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma. courtesy of the Lee family

 
 

Finding a match for a stem cell transplant is hard under normal circumstances. When the patient is biracial -- in this case, half-Chinese and half-Ashkenazi Jewish -- it's even harder.

That's why friends and family are desperately trying to find a stem cell match for Aaron Lee, a 34-year-old Inverness native and Fremd High School alumnus.

Lee needs a stem cell transplant to save his life as he battles a rare form of Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It's the same cancer Chicago Cubs stars Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester had, but a different and more deadly strain.

A stem cell drive is planned from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, at Beth Tikvah Congregation in Hoffman Estates, where Lee's parents are members. The stem cell test doesn't involve needles, just a cheek swab. Eligible donors must be between the ages of 18 and 44. Those who can't make it can get a testing kit sent by mail at http://join.bethematch.org/Match4Aaron.

"We're not asking people to do it just for Aaron," said his mother, Naomi Lee, of Inverness. "We hope that by donating, you can help many other people, too. What a wonderful thing if you could save a life."

Finding a stem cell match is harder for minority and multiracial patients. That's because most of the 11 million people in the national stem cell database are white, said Lauren Johnson, community engagement specialist at BeTheMatch.

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Because there's so much diversity in genetic tissue types, only one of every 540 potential donors actually ends up donating, Johnson said.

You don't have to be of Chinese or Jewish ancestry to be a potential match for Lee. Anyone could be a match, though odds of a match are higher if the person has similar ancestry.

"My match could come from anywhere," Aaron Lee said. "It's such a simple thing, and such a small thing. You have the cure for someone else's life that you're just carrying around with you. It's as simple as giving blood."

Last September, Aaron Lee was working as a health care consultant in Santa Ana, California, and running marathons in his free time when he started having headaches and achy joints that wouldn't get better. A CT scan revealed a cancerous tumor in his abdomen the size of a man's hand, his mother said, and the cancer had spread.

Lee's been undergoing brutal, intensive chemotherapy at a hospital in California. He's had a lot of support from his Fremd classmates who now live in Los Angeles, including Constance Parng, Albert Kim and Caitlin Barlow. They visit him weekly, promote stem cell donation on social media and at their jobs, and encourage people to lift Lee's spirits by posting well-wishes and jokes on his Facebook page.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Doctors told Lee a stem cell transplant is his best chance for survival.

"The chemo is only going to buy him up to a year," his mother said.

No one in Lee's family is a match. Beth Tikvah reached out to temples around the U.S., asking if they have any members of Chinese descent, but so far it hasn't found anyone. Temple volunteers have dropped off stem cell drive fliers at businesses around the suburbs.

Naomi Lee started to cry while describing all that the temple has done to help her family.

"These people wrapped themselves around us and said, 'What do you need?'" she said. "It means so much."

Unlike donating a kidney or bone marrow, donating stem cells doesn't require surgery. Donors take medicine for a week to boost their stem cell production, and then give blood. Their stem cells are harvested and the donor's body naturally regenerates the lost stem cells.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The healthy stem cells are then put into the patient's blood stream, where they can function and multiply. For the patient's body to accept the healthy cells, the donor and recipient need to be a close genetic match.

The process doesn't cost the donor anything -- Lee's insurance or BeTheMatch covers all expenses associated with the transplant, including transportation and lost wages.

"There are no side effects," Johnson said. "It's like a long blood donation ... and then you've saved a life."

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