Blood and bone marrow stem cell donors can save multiple lives – like that of cancer-survivor baby Mackenzie

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17-month-old Mackenzie “Mighty Mack” Friedman’s family is sharing her incredible story to encourage you to regularly donate blood (and to register as a bone marrow stem cell donor – ever hear about that before?).

In May 2022, Mackenzie was declared cancer-free. She reached this incredible milestone just over a year after she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), and 100 days after her successful bone marrow transplant. Without regular blood transfusions Mackenzie wouldn’t have survived her cancer treatment and been able to have a successful bone marrow stem cell transplant.

  • Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) occurs when young abnormal white blood cells called blasts (leukaemia cells) begin to fill up the bone marrow, which prevents normal blood production.
  • It's diagnosed when 20% of white blood cells in the bone marrow are blast cells.

“We were in complete shock when, in May 2021, we were told that our 4-month-old daughter had AML. Until then, Mack, our first child, had been a healthy baby who was meeting all her milestones,” says Mackenzie’s mom, Megan Harrington-Johnson.

“Mackenzie wouldn’t have survived the aggressive chemotherapy (chemo) and other treatments she had on her cancer journey, had it not been for multiple blood and platelets transfusions. Thanks to the generosity of regular blood donors, she was able to get to the point where she could have a bone marrow stem cell transplant.”

Starting Mackenzie on chemotherapy

“Two days after Mackenzie was diagnosed, she started chemotherapy,” says Harrington-Johnson.

Unfortunately, her cancer was extremely aggressive, so she needed aggressive treatment, and ultimately a bone marrow stem cell transplant if she were fortunate enough to reach a stage of remission.

“During her time in hospital, Mackenzie dealt with one infection after another, suffered kidney failure, spent time on a ventilator and also spent three months in an induced coma.

Miracles do happen

“Miraculously, in July 2021, Mackenzie went into remission and was matched to a bone marrow stem cell donor, which meant we could plan for her bone marrow stem cell transplant.”

Mackenzie’s family had to get her strength up after being in the coma. “She’d lost so much strength and couldn’t hold up her own head or suck on a bottle. In September, Mackenzie was discharged, but had to return to hospital frequently for more chemo to make sure she stayed in remission and to kill off her existing bone marrow ahead of the transplant.”

Mackenzie’s transplant is successful

On 14 January 2022, Mackenzie received her bone marrow stem cell transplant and she and her family began the agonising wait to see whether the new stem cells would graft. “Reaching the 100-day post-transplant milestone was key,” says Harrington-Johnson. “Those were not easy days. Mack contracted some serious infections along the way. Thankfully, she made it through them all.”

“11 months and four days after Mack was first admitted to the Donald Gordon Paediatric Oncology Unit, she rang the unit’s bell three times loudly to signal the end of her treatment and total healing.”

“We are now working as hard as we can to share the importance of both regular blood donation with the public”

“We urge as many people as possible to sign up – its free and as simple as swabbing the inside of your cheek with a cotton bud. We especially need people of colour to sign up. Mack was the only white child in her ward and the only one to receive a match. This is likely because we have European ancestry and there are more such people on local and global registries.”

“We must encourage and educate more people to sign up and let them know that should they ever be matched to a patient in need of a bone marrow stem cell donation, the process they go through as donors is pretty much as simple as donating a bit of blood.”

You can join the following bone marrow stem cell registries in South Africa:

  • Join the South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR). Registration is free and the recruitment process is quick and easy.
  • Join the DKMS Africa bone marrow stem cell registry. Follow the simple steps outlined on their website. Registration is free and the recruitment process is quick and easyThis excellent DKMS Africa video explains it all in three minutes.
Keen to donate blood? Here’s what you need to know
  • Each unit of donated blood saves a minimum of three lives as blood is separated into red blood cells, plasma, and platelets.
  •  You can donate blood every eight weeks.
  • You qualify to become a blood donor if you are between the ages of 16 and 75, weigh more than 50kg and in good health.
  • The SANBS recommends donors to eat a balanced meal within four hours before donating blood.

Less than 1% of South Africans are active blood donors

“According to the South African National Blood Service (SANBS), thousands of patients will die every day in the absence of sufficient, quality blood in stock,” says Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, Head of the Centre for Clinical Excellence at Discovery Health.

“Mackenzie, for example, needed a blood transfusion every second day and platelets every other day because of her type of cancer,” says Megan.

“Sadly, less than 1% of South Africans are active blood donors. A unit of blood only lasts 42 days after donation and for this reason, it is important for blood donors to donate regularly. It’s so important that every eligible person aim to get involved as a regular blood donor,” adds Dr Nematswerani.

“Discovery Health’s data highlights the need for blood transfusions and blood-related products. Between 2017 and 2022, we have paid out a total of almost R3.4 billion for both in-and out-of-hospital claims for donated blood.”

“Any of us might at some point need donated blood,” says Dr Nematswerani. “This blood is given to a wide range of people from accident trauma patients to surgical and cancer patients (like Mack), women who are haemorrhaging due to pregnancy or gynaecological complications, premature babies, children with severe anaemia and others.”

This article is sponsored, written and provided by Discovery Health (Pty) Ltd, registration number 1997/013480/07, an authorised financial services provider and administrator of medical schemes. Discovery Health Medical Scheme is administered by Discovery Health.

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