Can you save a life?

Friday, March 4, 2011
Angela Scoggins of Westhills, and her son, consider an organ donation form presented by Kenny Walton during a health fair.

Esther Hightower-Scott is waiting for kidney transplant surgery. Originally from Lewisburg, the 55-year-old medical receptionist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville was back in town last weekend for a health fair in the city's Recreation Center.

That's where the 1973 Marshall County High School graduate spoke openly about her medical condition with Kenny Walton who hosted a booth to get people to sign organ donation agreements.

"Probably, my diabetes wasn't under control," Hightower-Scott said on why she needs a transplant operation. "I've been on dialysis since 2003."

That takes time from her life and emphasizes the life or death issue, she agrees.

"There's nothing I can do about it but go forward," Hightower-Scott said as Walton explained that's a typical attitude for people like her.

"You have to decide to go on living," he said. "Otherwise, you're busy dying."

Walton is "a 10-year brain cancer survivor," he said, offering himself as an example of what modern medicine can do for the body and spirit.

Such optimism comes with favorable statistics that show transplant surgery seems routine with a 90 percent success rate, they agreed while seated near a booth with a similar but more statistically complicated program.

Advocates for the Be The Match Registry are looking for people willing to have their DNA tested to see if their stem cells are like others' who suffer leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma or other deadly diseases.

"This registry has 9 million donors who are willing to submit to a bone marrow harvest or a peripheral blood selection procedure," Registry advocate Linda McVey said of the process that's generally compared to blood donation.

As McVey explained, Teresa Neese of Verona Caney Road filled out a form saying she's willing to help. "I'm all about helping other people," Neese said.

Registry advocates hope volunteers' DNA shows there's enough of a match to warrant use of their bone marrow or blood cells to revive a deathly ill patient back to health after chemotherapy and radiation treatment kills what ails them.

"We'd be matching 10 numbers on the DNA helix," said McVey, seated next to her husband, Nat, who offered a few words of plain English to explain modern medicine.

"The best match is an identical twin or a sibling," Nat McVey said.

What's drawn from a donor is "infused" into a patient like a blood transfusion to prompt the regeneration of blood in the patient body that's been treated with strong medicine and radiation. That's the cure. Getting to that point isn't easy.

"There is a great need for minorities on the registry," McVey said.

It's because America is the melting pot. Statistically, it's easier to match a white man's DNA to another Caucasian.

But suppose Tiger Woods' child is sick. He's the son of a black man and an Asian woman. His former Swedish blond wife's child has rare DNA.

"Conservatively speaking, there's less than a one percent chance of finding a donor" for such a patient, McVey said. "Otherwise, it's about 25-30 percent for Caucasians.

"Stem cell transplantation is like organ donation, but the donor is alive," McVey said.

Endorsing that is Lish Burgess, associate pastor of Allen Bethel AME Church, a chief organizer of the four-hour health fair dubbed Heal the Land - organized and funded through the Allen Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Believe Inc. with support from the Marshall County Health Council and the Air Evac LifeTeam helicopter ambulance service.

"Be The Match is a great organization," Burgess said of the practical use of science. "It brings back my biology classes at Lipscomb University. It's like doing a family tree. We're trying to raise awareness in the communities about bone marrow donations.

"We had at least 30 venders and providers," Burgess said. "We were able to log at least 270 people as coming through. We know we missed a lot, so we've said we had over 300 people attending.

"It was for the community," he continued. "The genesis of this was completion of my ordination in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tennessee and Kentucky."

AME Bishop Vashti McKenzie, who's based in Nashville where the AME 13th District office is located, created the Believe Foundation, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that's raised money through gospel concerts, golf tournaments and other events so it can make grants.

One of Burgess' assignments for his seminary studies was to write a grant application and he selected having a health fair in a rural community church. Rather than just do it as an exercise, he went ahead and applied for money to actually do it. A $1,000 grant was awarded in October.

Burgess and his wife, Tyronda, pastor at Allen Bethel AME Church, 320 Haynes St., came to Lewisburg in November.

Now, he says, "We're looking at presenting two health fairs. The other will be in Charlotte at the Mt. Zion AME Church in Dickson County.

"We need to get information to the rural community. We didn't charge a fee for booths."

Others helped. Walgreens donated glucose monitors and the store manager was present, Burgess said. R.L. Williams, an Allen Bethel officer, is on the Marshall County Health Council and he drew in help from Anna Childress at the county health clinic, among others.

Meanwhile, Burgess hopes the fair can become an annual event.

"I'm applying for another grant that's due on May 31st so we can do it again next year," the seminarian said. "We are to serve the community and not just serve those in the church but to go out into the community."