NCCU trying to find his bone marrow match sophomore
Sheldon Mba was only 18 years old and about to take his high school finals when he started going through tired, disoriented and light-headed spells.
He thought he was out of shape, at a time when he was in the best physical condition of his life, dancing and marching in the school band. He got more sleep. He drank more water. But Mba didn’t receive clarity until he was diagnosed with a blood disorder at UNC Hospital.
“I really thought that I would just get a shot or get some pills and it would be taken care of,” he said. “But it wasn’t that simple, and they had to explain that to me. It just kind of made me look at life completely differently. I kind of stopped dancing for a month or two.”
A year later, he is a 19-year-old N.C. Central University theater and dance sophomore living with the daily side effects of paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), a rare and life-threatening disease in which the body’s red blood cells, missing a key protein, are attacked by white blood cells. He also has aplastic anemia, a blood disorder in which the body's bone marrow doesn't make enough new blood cells. He takes eight medications every day. He visits the UNC clinic every two weeks.
He is now looking for his bone marrow match, a transplant that would grant him a second chance.
The transplant takes a donor’s healthy, blood-forming cells and puts them into the patient’s bloodstream, where they begin to grow and make healthy red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
Mba has become the national face for the “Give A Spit” campaign, organized by DoSomething.org, a network of causes led by young people, and Be The Match, the largest, most diverse marrow donor registry in the world.
With only 7 percent of Be The Match’s 12 million registered donors being African American, Mba is helping to increase the number of bone marrow donors of color.
During NCCU Homecoming today, Mba is helping to hold a registry drive on campus.
“God wouldn’t give me something that I couldn’t handle,” he said. “… There are people who are in my condition who aren’t in as good physical shape as me. I’m making sure I’m doing this for all the people who can’t or don’t want to share their stories.”
Donors and patients have to match their tissue types, not blood types, and there are thousands out there. The best matches are found in the same race and ethnicity.
The size of the African-American donor pool can be compared to Jordan Lake, said Betsie Letterle, a Be The Match Marrow Registry account executive, compared to the “Atlantic Ocean” of the Caucasian donor pool.
“When you are a patient looking for a transplant, it doesn’t matter how many people are on the registry if nobody matches you,” Letterle said. “And Sheldon is one of those patients. Nobody at this time matches him.”
Mba’s doctor at UNC Health Care, Philip Roehrs, said it’s about focusing on things they can control versus things they can’t.
They can’t control if Mba finds a donor, said Roehrs, an assistant professor in the UNC department of pediatrics, division of hematology-oncology. But they can try to control his health while they wait.
“Everybody loves him,” Roehrs said of Mba, and he hopes his patient’s activism leads to more African Americans joining the registry.
“I’ve taken care of a lot, a great deal, of African-American patients, and unfortunately we’ve had patients die from their illness waiting for a donor,” Roehrs said. “We’ve been left doing riskier transplants where they get a half match from a mom or a dad and I think this is a huge issue.”
Mba said adding 200 people to the registry is Saturday’s goal. And those people won’t just get their cheeks swabbed for him, but they’ll be joining the registry for every patient that may need them for years to come.
“I tell myself this every day: Wake up, find something to laugh at and hold onto it for the rest of the day, and that will keep you smiling,” he said.
WANT TO HELP?
Join the Be The Match registry! Visit BeTheMatch.org or participate in Saturday’s “Swab for Sheldon” event.
Times/locations to join the Be The Match registry during NCCU Homecoming:
• The Homecoming tailgate (on the track and practice field off Lawson Street), 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
• The Library Bowl, next to the James E. Shepard Memorial Library (across from the stadium), after the football game
• The Homecoming Block Party on George Street, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.