Sick student awaits life-saving bone marrow donation

Sheldon Mba hasn’t asked his doctors how much time he has left. He doesn’t want to know the answer.

It was more than two years ago that Mba, a 19-year-old dance major at North Carolina Central University, began to feel tired and strange. At first he thought it was the flu or dehydration. Maybe he just needed to get more sleep, to push himself further as an athlete, he recalls.

But as Mba’s condition continued to deteriorate throughout high school, he was diagnosed with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), an extremely rare blood disorder that breaks down red blood cells.

Later, he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a condition in which bone marrow does not make enough red blood cells.

Grieving the recent death of his father (which doctors now believe was the result of an undiagnosed case of PNH) while dealing with his own diagnosis, Mba’s entire life was “on hold.”.

He spent a month bed-ridden, on an aggressive regimen of medications and blood transfusions, yet managed to graduate high school in Durham, N.C. — With honors.

“I was hoping that I could get a shot or a pill to get rid of it, but it was a lot more complex than that,” Mba says.”.

The only permanent solution to Mba’s sicknesses is a bone marrow transplant, which replaces the spongy, inner material of the bones with another person’s healthy bone marrow stem cells.

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Marrow is either collected in drawn blood or through a surgical procedure. It is then transplanted to the sick patient, whose body will either reject or accept the donation.

Often, the most “perfect” marrow matches occur with two people from the same ethnic background, as tissue types are inherited. The more dissimilar the tissue, the more likely a patient will reject the marrow and develop graph-versus-host disease, a potentially fatal infection.

No one in Mba’s immediate family was a close enough match.

His doctor, Philip Roehrs, searched the nationwide Be the Match marrow donor registry, a database of 10.5 million potential donors.

There was no match there, either.

Due to a severe lack of minority donors within the registry, African-Americans only have a 66% chance of finding a match, as compared to Caucasian’s 93% success rate, according to Be The Match.

Now, Mba is a “sitting duck” desperately awaiting his life-saving “perfect match” to join the registry, says Roehrs, a pediatric hematologist oncologist at UNC Health Care.

Roehrs says that Mba has responded well to aggressive medications. The sophomore has been able to continue his studies looking deceptively healthy, choreographing school performances and working out regularly.

“It’s a lot easier to have empathy for a patient who is bald and emaciated and looks sick, but Sheldon is just as sick — if not sicker –than a lot of our cancer patients,” Roehrs explains. “It would actually be a lot better for Sheldon to have leukemia, if that puts things in perspective.”.

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Paul Cannon, a senior at NCCU and Mba’s mentor, says most people have no idea how sick Mba really is.

“He’ll talk and laugh, and he’ll be in pain,” Cannon says. “I can admire it, but it’s kind of scary. He’s a trooper; he’s a fighter. He is an inspiration all the way around.”.

In partnership with DoSomething.Org’s “Give a Spit” campus campaign, Cannon and other NCCU students recently held a “Swab for Sheldon” bone marrow drive, swabbing students’ cheeks to send skin cells to the national registry.

Though more than 7,000 students nationwide signed up to hold a “Give a Spit” bone marrow drive at their school, only 40 students volunteered to be swabbed at Sheldon’s drive.

“There are so many myths in our community about health care,” Cannon says. “There’s a mistrust, like myths about flu shots …People are not informed, they are not educated about health care, especially the older generation.”.

Mba says that everywhere he goes, he can’t help but look down the street and wonder if some stranger in the crowd is his “perfect match.”.

“When you tell people about signing up for the bone marrow registry, and they get this cringe in their face,” Mba says. “I put on a good show face even when I’m feeling bad and everything … But if I don’t get a bone marrow transplant, I will die. And that’s just the truth.”.

While awaiting a match can be frustrating, Roehrs says it is is between to focus on raising awareness about the registry.

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“He is one of the clinic’s favorite patients,” Roehrs says. “He’s just a ray of sunshine every time he’s in clinic, he brings a smile on everyone’s face that he encounters. We all love Sheldon and it’s been a journey and we’re still on it.”.

Mba’s goal after graduation is to provide “a creative outlet” of dance therapy to sick children in hospitals and seniors in nursing homes, but his future relies on the charity of strangers.

“You’re walking around and you could be the potential match for somebody,” Mba says. “It’s to help the human race, and we’re all here together. We can get together and give back.”.