David Crawford and Angela Kwan's nightmare began on the last day of a trip to Disneyland, when the lips of their sports-crazy 4-year-old son, Kyle, started bleeding. Kyle had recently been bruising excessively, but his pediatrician reassured his parents that was normal for such an active young boy. But when Kyle started vomiting blood after they returned to their home in San Mateo, California, his parents rushed him to the emergency room.
The news was terrifying: Kyle was gravely ill with an uncommon condition called severe aplastic anemia, a blood disease that occurs when the body stops producing enough new blood cells. If left untreated, Kyle's immune system might become so compromised that he could die from a common infection. His only hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant.
Matching bone marrow is an extremely complex process. There are eight common blood types, but millions upon millions—possibly an infinite number—of marrow tissue types. In fact, 70 percent of patients do not have a donor in their family, according to Be The Match, which maintains the world's largest bone marrow donor registry.
Finding a match for Kyle was even more complicated because he's half Caucasian and half Chinese. While the likelihood of finding a match among people not related to you is as high as 97 percent if you are of northern European heritage, only 4 percent of Be The Match registry donors are mixed race.
After his diagnosis, Kyle was put on cyclosporine, which suppresses the activity of immune cells that damage bone marrow. But the drug can permanently damage other vital organs; it wasn't a long-term solution. By the summer of 2014, Kyle's doctors knew it was too risky to keep him on the drug much longer. They needed to find a bone marrow donor.
Kyle's father had been coordinating bone marrow registry drives since his diagnosis. No one knew that the man who'd eventually save Kyle's life was across the country, working as the department head for the administration department for Naval Health Clinic Annapolis. A 43-year-old father of two and an Iraq War veteran with a warm smile, Lieutenant Kawika Segundo is Caucasian, Chinese, and Hawaiian. He'd joined the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program in 2009, when he was going through radiation health tech training in Groton, Connecticut. It had been a simple process, requiring a quick DNA swab inside his cheek and a short health questionnaire.
That cheek swab was a distant memory on the August day in 2014 when an unrecognized number flashed on Lt. Segundo's cell phone. Assuming it was a telemarketer, he considered not answering.
But he did. And while all he was told was that he had been identified as an excellent match for 7-year-old boy with severe aplastic anemia, Lt. Segundo agreed to discuss it with his wife, Dawn, and to ask for approval from his chain of command (since harvesting bone marrow is an elective surgery). He was even more determined to commit once he learned about the lack of mixed-race donors in the registry. He's since driven home the urgency with this analogy: "I say it's like your child getting a snake bite and only one person has the antidote—and you've got to find that person."
He got his wife's blessing and the Navy's approval, and on September 23, 2014, doctors at the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., put Lt. Segundo under general anesthesia and extracted bone marrow from his hip. Lt. Segundo called the process "easy"—he says recovery was like having a slightly sore back—but he was monitored in the hospital for two nights afterward.
Later on the day of the bone marrow harvesting, Kyle's mom was sitting in the isolation unit of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. "I was praying that nothing happened to the donor," Kwan remembers. The bone marrow arrived and the chaplain, doctors, nurses, and social workers gathered to say a prayer to bless the bag of red tissue. Kyle was asleep, severely weakened by the chemotherapy and radiation that was prescribed to wipe out as much as possible of what remained of his immune system.
Today, Kyle is a healthy 8-year-old who loves fishing and is happy to be back playing on his Little League team. On the one-year anniversary of the transplant, Be The Match gave Lt. Segundo and Kyle's parents each other's contact information, per federal law. Be The Match also arranged for them to meet for the first time at its annual education conference in Minneapolis in November 2015. And that's how these two families from opposite sides of the country discovered they shared a deep bond. "Lt. Segundo gave hope not only to us but also to Kyle's grandparents, aunts, and cousins who would have lost so much if there wasn't a match," says Kwan, her voice cracking.
When the families met onstage at the conference, the hotel ballroom erupted in a standing ovation, and Lt. Segundo bent down to greet Kyle. "I would do this over and over and over," he told the crowd. He had something else to say directly to the young boy standing nervously next to his parents.
"There are many heroes in this world," he said, making it clear that Kyle had inspired him, too. It was an overwhelming moment for such a young child; most of the audience was in tears. But Kyle stepped forward and smiled at Lt. Segundo. He raised his right hand to his forehead and offered a slow but determined salute to the man who had given him a second chance at life.
And then Lt. Segundo knelt down and pinned to Kyle's shirt the Purple Heart he received during a tour of Iraq.
Please join the registry, either in person at a donor registry drive in your area or at join.BeTheMatch.org/ParentsMag. You will complete the health history form online, and the swab kit will be mailed to you with prepaid postage. More young people of diverse racial and ethnic heritage are needed now to help patients searching for a match.