Emcee Denise Dador (right) presided over the first-time meeting between marrow donor Jennifer Lee and transplant recipient Mario Cases.
By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
LONG BEACH — Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M) celebrated 26 years of saving lives at its Starnight Gala on Oct. 7 at the Hyatt Regency Long Beach.
Highlights included a first-time meeting between a bone marrow donor and a transplant recipient, and an award for a long-time volunteer.
Founded in 1991, A3M helps Asian Pacific Americans and other people of color suffering from life-threatening blood diseases by conducting year-round drives for potential bone marrow donors, adding them to the national Be The Match Registry. If a tissue match cannot be found among family members, the next best chance of finding a match is among people of the same ethnic/racial background as the patient.
Nancy Sakakura presents the 2017 Human Spirit Award to Gene Kanamori.
Hemant Mistry, event co-chair, recalled an incident three years ago that reminded him of “the incredible work A3M does every day to save lives, bring hope and create miracles, serving families and patients.” He had just organized a donor drive at the Los Angeles office of his company, Capital Group, and was walking back to his car in an underground garage, carrying an A3M banner. A black SUV with darkened windows started coming toward him and he became apprehensive.
“The SUV pulls up in front of me, the window comes slowly down. The man behind the wheel … looks at me and says, ‘A3M! I registered 10 years ago.’ A few years later he was called in as a donor match. He saved a 9-year-old girl’s life … I could not believe I just met someone who had just created a miracle and saved a life … He gave me a high-five.”
Denise Dador, health reporter for ABC 7 Eyewitness News, served as emcee. When she moved to L.A. 19 years ago, “this was one of the first charities that caught my attention,” she said. “It really touched me … how much faith you have in humanity, how much faith you have in each other … When we’re together, we can definitely save lives. What we have here is much more important than money.”
Dador introduced Matt Medina, a Filipino American LAPD officer and father of two who still needs to find a match. A3M has organized drives on his behalf, including one at Filipino Night at Dodger Stadium. “From the 1,600 people that have been recruited by A3M because of his story, six people have found matches,” she announced. “… The effort is ongoing, not only for Matt but for many patients from many communities that are looking for a second chance at life.”
A3M Director Susan Choi introduced Tom Kurai, abbot at Sozenji Buddhist Temple and director of Los Angeles Taiko Center, who was scheduled to undergo a transplant the following week. She acknowledged another patient who was not present, Krissy Kobata, who was also scheduled for a transplant.
Nancy Sakakura, who received her transplant 11 years ago, presented the 2017 Human Spirit Award to Gene Kanamori, an old friend, longtime leader of A3M, and gala co-chair. She recalled a conversation with her husband Mark: “When I was first diagnosed in 2002 with a bone marrow disease, Gene came up to him and said, ‘I have to do something to help, I just have to do something’ … He meant it. He’s so sweet and so caring.
“Often people get involved when they know someone that’s affected by deadly disease. Since Gene had been previously involved with A3M before I was diagnosed, he was already committed. I’d like to think that he stepped up his game because I was in need of a marrow transplant … but actually this is just who Gene is. He is a caring person. His real reason for all his dedication and commitment throughout the years to A3M is that he knows A3M saves lives … His encouragement, support and guidance have meant a second chance for all patients in need.”
Sakakura shared a personal recollection: “Our boys used to play OCO (Orange Coast Optimist) basketball together as children. Now they’re young men. He was often heard in the gym … challenging a referee’s calls. Our boys’ teams were playing in a basketball tournament in Northern California. Of course, being my quiet self … I might have been complaining a little bit about the ref’s calls … Suddenly, the game came to a halt. We thought the kids were getting technical fouls for unsportsmanlike behavior. To my surprise, the ref was pointing at Gene and I, so basically Gene got me in trouble. So we had to keep our mouths shut the rest of the game or be escorted out of the gym.”
From left: A3M Director Susan Choi, marrow recipient Tom Kurai, A3M Development Director Madhuri Mistry, and emcee Denise Dador of ABC 7.
After accepting the award, Kanamori jokingly gave a rebuttal: “That’s not how it happened … I wish your kids were here too because they’ll verify Nancy was yelling her head off. I was quiet. When they asked the referee who was doing it, they said it was the person with the masculine voice … From that point on for the rest of the season, I did not sit with them.”
On a serious note, he added, “My family is real close to your family and we’ve been on that journey for a very long time. Every time we see Nancy, we get so happy.”
Kanamori acknowledged the presence of people from UPS, where he worked for 28 years, and from community organizations in which he is active, including Keiro (where he is director of human resources), Japanese American National Museum, Go For Broke National Education Center, Sansei Legacy Group, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, and Little Tokyo Service Center, A3M’s fiscal agent.
Singers and musicians from the Korean American Music Academy performed.
He also recognized many family members in attendance, including wife Vickie, son Lance, daughter and son-in-law Traci and Eric Murata, brother Greg, parents Shogo and Mae, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins. In particular he thanked his wife for being “very understanding” when he missed family dinners and school functions because of his volunteer work.
“Back around 1990, a young man named Nick (Suzuki) was diagnosed with leukemia,” Kanamori recalled. “He needed a bone marrow transplant to survive. Nick had some loving aunts (Sharon Sugiyama and Kathy Ninomiya). They knew what they had to do, even back then … We started to organize bone marrow drives.” They contacted Bill Watanabe, then director of LTSC, and A3M was born.
Dinner co-chair Hemant Mistry.
Unfortunately, a suitable donor wasn’t found, but since then “A3M has added 300,000 people on that registry … close to 10,000 new people every year,” he said.
Likening A3M’s campaign to the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” in which the U.S. hockey team unexpectedly beat the Soviet team in the Winter Olympics, Kanamori said, “Every single year since 1991, leaders like Sharon Sugiyama, Shin Ito and now Susan Choi, and the wonderful staff, ask themselves, ‘Do we believe in miracles?’ They go out and register people in the hope of providing that miracle for a person in our community who suffers from this deadly disease. Over 600 drives a year … A3M is responsible for 400 donors who have donated their marrow … When you help A3M, you are saving lives.”
Noting that Kobata has an “army of people,” known as Team Krissy, in her corner, he said, “People like Matt and Tom, who are here, this is your army. We’re going to find that match for you. We’re going to help you.”
In addition to the award, Choi presented Kanamori with a city proclamation on behalf of her hometown, Alhambra.
The transplant recipient who was introduced to his donor on stage was Mario Cases, who emigrated from the Philippines in 1989, and has had a series of medical crises over the last three years. He underwent surgery for testicular cancer and found out that the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in his lower back. While recovering from a radical, six-hour surgery, he was diagnosed with myelodyplastic syndrome transformed to acute myelogenous leukemia.
Believing that his days were numbered, Cases visited the Philippines, “thinking that I can’t see my mom anymore.” While at Sloan Kettering in New York, it was discovered that two of his sisters were perfect matches, but they could not be donors due to medical issues of their own. An umbilical cord stem cell transplant was ruled out due to heart problems he had developed.
After an anonymous stem cell donor proved to be a near match, Cases underwent intense chemotherapy and received the transplant on June 16, 2016, which he considers his “second birthday.”
Jennifer Lee learned about Be The Match through her church in Santa Monica and registered. A few years later she was contacted as a possible match for a patient. “The only concern I had was that I had a baby that was still nursing and I knew I had to stop,” she said, because the drugs administered to the donor might affect her milk. “But a life compared to breastfeeding, of course you chose a life even if it’s just a possibility of someone surviving and being able to spend more time with his family.”
She later learned that the operation was a success, but that donor and patient generally do not meet each other until a year or more later.
Although some matching donors decline to undergo the procedure, “I still don’t feel like a hero. Anybody would do it to save someone,” Lee said. “… I didn’t think I’d be emotional. There are no tears on my face, but I do feel very emotional right now just to see him standing here. I’m just very, very happy that he’s alive and well …
“It’s so little that you have to do in exchange for someone’s life … We all come from a family, we all have parents, siblings, or even little ones at home. For them to spend just one more day with their parents or their partners or their children … It’s not that much to give, a little of your time, only one day … almost painless … You feel great afterwards, too.”
Not knowing the identity or even the gender of his donor until that evening, Cases dressed formally for the occasion and brought a bouquet of flowers. Dador introduced them and they embraced as the audience applauded.
Asked if he had a message for Medina, Cases responded, “Just keep going and stay positive.”
Mistry and sponsor Rich Lee made a pitch for additional donations, and A3M Development Director Madhuri Mistry, who thanked the audience and told first-timers, “I hope you were a little more educated about what A3M does and the need in the community and the results that you can see in front of you, what you saw today.”
The evening included a performance of songs in English and Korean by the Korean American Music Academy, an opportunity drawing and a silent auction.
For more information, visit www.a3mhope.org.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo