27 And In Need Of A Bone Marrow Transplant: You Could Be The Cure

Shaunise Robinson shares how she is using her potentially fatal diagnosis to raise awareness in the need for diversity in bone marrow donors.

Human Interest

The first time that I had ever heard of Be The Match was years ago when Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts announced her cancer diagnosis.

In the campaign that acted as a 30-second television spot, Roberts said, “I have a chance to survive blood cancer because my big sister answered 'yes' to being my marrow donor. You can join the Be The Match Registry today at BeTheMatch.org, and stand ready to cure someone with a disease like leukemia."

It was a powerful call-to-action that made me feel some type of way about resting on my laurels as opposed to doing what I can for those in need. The potential to be someone's cure really spoke to me. I found myself signing up to register as a donor in the registry shortly after.

But I stopped myself from continuing with the process after receiving some input from my mother who felt that it was a painful process and just something that black people just “don't do". That phrase is something that stops us in our tracks as a community a lot, sometimes to our detriment – that day five years ago was no different.

The Urgent Need for Diversity in Bone Marrow Donors

My encounters with Be The Match came full circle for me the other day when I received an email from a representative who felt like Black History Month would be the perfect time to relay a message to our readers that was a simple, clear, yet resounding, “We need you." Even though Roberts' campaign led to over 40,000 new donors signing up, there is still an undeniable void amongst one group of people in the registry: black people.

Patients are most likely to match a donor that closely shares their ancestry. Black people have historically had the lowest odds of finding a match compared to other populations in the registry. Why? Because…

  1. Black people have the most diverse genetic tissue types compared to other ethnicities.
  2. Not enough black people volunteer as bone marrow donors in the registry.

Currently, we only make up 6% of the registry, which is a far cry from the 51% that account for white people in the registry. As the global leader of umbilical cord blood transplants and bone marrow transplants, Be The Match is often the only hope for patients looking to find a cure for blood-related cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, as well as sickle cell anemia, and other anemic/blood disorders. It should be noted that bone marrow is so far the only cure out there for sickle cell anemia.

Since we just make up 6% of donors in the registry, bone marrow transplants that are a match can be hard for many patients to find. And, without access to qualifying donors, a cure is less likely for recipients to find. You would think that if you have siblings, you'd be covered, like in Roberts case where her sister was a match for her and her cancer was cured.

But Roberts is the exception, not the rule. In fact, 70% of patients do not have a fully matched marrow donor in their family, which is why Be The Match is so pivotal to offering a cure to those in dire need of finding a viable marrow transplant, like Shaunise Robinson for example.

The Importance of Be The Match

Shaunise Robinson at an Aplastic Anemia Awareness drive

Shaunise Robinson is a 27-year-old third grade teacher who believes her life purpose is to help children through education. The mother of one (a son who turned 4 this month) is a doctoral-degree candidate at Texas A&M. But this past fall, a fulfilled life took an unexpected turn when in November 2016, Shaunise was officially diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a really rare blood disorder that causes all of her blood counts to be severely low, causing severe fatigue, shortness of breath, a very weak immune system, and profuse bleeding (because blood cannot clot).

Eventually, her bone marrow may not be able to make enough new blood cells, which can lead to many more health problems, including an enlarged heart, irregular heartbeats, heart failure, infections, bleeding, and even death.

Regarding the disorder, Shaunise says:

“They don't know how this happened, they don't know where it came from. In most cases, you'll never really find out how you got it, it just happens. It doesn't run in your family. It has nothing to do with that."

She remembers being in the middle of teaching a class when she got the call that confirmed all her concerns about her health. Earlier in that week, she had gone to her OBGYN and explained an issue she had been having with profuse bleeding. After years of feeling like something was off with her body, but being told again and again that everything was fine, her OBGYN went above and beyond by taking her blood count to find the root of her problems. Tests were ran and her blood counts were revealed to be severely low. She had to rush to the hospital immediately. Doctors believed it was some form of cancer, but after extracting a bone marrow biopsy from her back, they found the real culprit to her health issues: aplastic anemia.

After being connected to a larger hospital, Shaunise was also given the information and connected with Be The Match. She started hosting drives to find a donor and began her journey of raising awareness for the organization and giving a voice to the voiceless, because oftentimes, patients with blood-related illnesses and diseases are young children who can't speak up for themselves.

Shaunise has no donor, can't teach her students (due to potential illnesses she could catch) who miss her as much as she misses them, but she still manages to have an incredible and giving spirit in the midst of her hardship. During my brief call with her, I noticed that her light was undeniable and absolutely radiated, even during a time where most would be overcome by darkness. “I have a lot of faith that I'm going to find a donor and that everything's going to be fine. I feel like I have a purpose and a lot of things I still have to accomplish in life. So, I really don't think negatively about it. I think about it like everything happens for a reason. I'm able to tell people about it that maybe would never have known about it and they're able to join the registry and help someone else. I always think about it that way and that everything happens for a reason and that God's purpose was for me to have this. I don't know the exact reason why, but I know there's a reason why this happened to me."

"I want to make the best of it. I want to raise awareness so that me going through this isn't in vain."

What the Bone Marrow Donation Process Is Really Like

Aside from not knowing about Be The Match, I realized a common theme that stops people from signing up is the fear of the process. People hear the words “extraction", hear about the long needle, hesitance goes into overdrive, and they aren't willing to donate bone marrow at all. I don't blame them, I too fell victim to believing the hype that the procedure was far too painful to endure and thus wiped my hands of the possibility of it. However, former Villanova University defensive back CJ Logan sang a different tune for me.

The now 23-year-old New York-based financial advisor was on the Villanova University football team back in the spring of 2013 when he signed up for the registry. At the time, he was on a football team led by Coach Talley, who believed in giving back to the community in any way that they could and who had a close personal connection to the message of the Be The Match foundation.

After submitting a cheek swab for the registry, CJ wouldn't get a call about a bone marrow donation until two years later in the fall of 2015, during his senior year. He got a follow-up email detailing that he and two other people could potentially be a match for a patient in need of a transplant. He went to a nearby hospital where they drew some extra blood. “About a week or so later, they told me, 'Hey, you're the definite match. Are you interested in doing it? Can you come in?' I was like, 'Absolutely'," he says with a smile in his voice, “As far as I was concerned, if it was my mom or my sister in that position – because I was donating to a 33-year-old international woman – I definitely wish that someone who had the opportunity to make a difference would step up and do it."

CJ Logan after his donation to a bone marrow transplant recipient

The morning of December 15, 2015, CJ went in for surgery to begin the bone marrow donation procedure. “I came in early - 5:30, 6 am. I gave some more blood. I talked to the nurses. I met the surgeon who was going to do the operation. I relaxed. Like an hour and a half later, I remember them talking to me and (after that) I just (remember that I) woke up. It was because of the anesthesia," he laughs. “It was very quick. Afterwards, I stayed in the hospital just because. The following morning, Coach Talley had one of the assistant coaches pick me up from the hospital."

Despite the intimidating length of the needle, CJ said he felt no pain at all during his procedure because of the drugs he was given. In fact, the only pain he felt was more like a soreness in his back for the first couple of weeks post-surgery and said the discomfort was comparable to losing a game to Delaware and the “battle wounds" that'd include. “It was a little stiff. But with that being said, I didn't think it was too discouraging. If anybody were to get a call saying they were a match, I would 100% encourage them to do it."

"I never thought that as an individual that I could make that big of an impact on someone else's life."

It being all about the bigger picture was a recurring theme in both conversations I had with Shaunise and CJ, just told through different perspectives. Although he didn't know much about the woman who recieved the life-changing donation, he felt blessed to be able to change and extend someone's life and that was louder than any fear. "It's a blessing. If there were any doubts about me making it to heaven prior to that surgery, I hope that secured it," CJ shares with a laugh, "But no, honestly, it was a remarkable experience, because I never thought as a single person, as an individual, that I could make that big of an impact on someone else's life. So that's definitely something that I carry with me."

The Bottom Line

In response to anyone who still might have reservations about joining the registry, Shaunise states, "One of the biggest things right now is the registry isn't that diverse. I'm an African-American. You have to find a donor that represents your DNA. My best match is going to be someone who shares my ancestry, an African-American. The problem is, African-Americans represent 6% of the registry. Hispanics represent 10%. Asians represent 6%, so if you are of a diverse background, we're not really represented in the registry. This could happen to anybody. I'm 27 years old. I was healthy. I was active my whole life. This happens to anyone, little kids. I met this two-year-old girl. I can't imagine being a child going through this. For people who are hesitant, we have to think beyond that. We need to help each other."

Shaunise Robinson's story was exactly the thing that I needed to remember how much good could happen from the smallest thing. Registering is simple and to the point, the donation process is straightforward and includes anesthesia, and the end result is saving someone's life who might otherwise not have a solution to what's slowly killing them or making them ill. I was reminded of the power of community and again the ripple effect that comes with doing the right thing. Not to mention the good karma.

"If you are of a diverse background, we're not really represented in the registry. This could be anybody."

I think as black people we need to make ourselves present in all spaces, especially spaces where there is a demand for diversity. It's great that we're on more television shows, that we can shout FUBU anthems from the mountain tops, and that we can shop black, but we also need to make sure that we show our faces in these places and uplift our community health-wise as well. Shaunise and CJ are right, it could be any of us.

I hope to someday be the match for someone in need. Until then, I am an active member of the registry, on-call to be a donor at any time for anyone. At least, until I'm 65.

So, will you join the registry?

Visit Be The Match today and find out ways how to be of service to people fighting blood-related illnesses and diseases and how to support the cause by joining the bone marrow registry.

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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