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Bone marrow drive energized for African Americans in Pittsburgh

| Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, 11:42 p.m.
Howard Russell of East Hills is spearheading a campaign to get more black people to donate marrow and organs. Russell began the campaign because his friend Rex Crawley, who had cancer, died awaiting a bone marrow transplant.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Howard Russell of East Hills is spearheading a campaign to get more black people to donate marrow and organs. Russell began the campaign because his friend Rex Crawley, who had cancer, died awaiting a bone marrow transplant.

Battling cancer and awaiting a bone marrow transplant, Rex Crawley died before he could complete his campaign to encourage black people to donate marrow and organs.

Friends of the community activist, though, are fulfilling his wish by holding a bone marrow donor drive that highlights a nationwide shortage of donors in the black community.

“It's been easy to galvanize the community because of the kind of person he was,” said Howard Russell, 48, of the East Hills, one of the organizers and a close friend of Crawley's.

Thousands of people with leukemia and other blood diseases benefit every year from bone marrow transplantation, in which healthy blood-forming cells are put directly into a patient's bloodstream. Experts worry that too many sick people struggle to find a genetically compatible match. That's especially true among blacks because their genes tend to be more racially mixed, experts said.

“African-Americans unfortunately have the lowest chance of finding an available match,” said Nadya Dutchin, national accounts representative of Be The Match, a nonprofit that recruits marrow donors nationwide.

Crawley underwent a transplant in the 1990s with bone marrow he donated himself because he could not find a match. He expected to donate his marrow, possibly this month, for a transplant before he succumbed to cancer. He left behind a wife, Daria, 50, and two sons, Xavier, 6, and Vaughan, 11 months.

“I know in heaven he's smiling and happy that this vision of his is getting done,” Daria Crawley, an associate professor of management at Robert Morris University, said about her husband's friend's taking up the reins of the campaign for him.

The deaths of three prominent black leaders in Western Pennsylvania energized the campaign's supporters. The dead include: Crawley, a professor of communication at Robert Morris and co-director of the Black Male Leadership Development Institute, who died Nov. 25 at the age of 49; Bernadette Turner, executive director of Addison Behavioral Health, who died Dec. 26 at 42; and Sylvester Pace, president and CEO of the Negro Educational Emergency Drive, who died June 8, 2012, at 58. All were awaiting a bone marrow transplant.

“Anytime you lose people of this magnitude, it hurts,” said Russell, owner of a private equity firm. “They were great people who were doing wonderful things here.”

Russell is working on the campaign with local chapters of black fraternities and sororities known as the Divine 9, the UPMC Center for Inclusion and Engagement and Be The Match, the national bone marrow registry based in Minneapolis.

“No sooner than the morning that Rex had passed, Howard reached out and he said, ‘Don't worry about this thing. We'll carry on and do what Rex wanted us to do,' ” Dutchin said.

Two ways to donate include a nonsurgical procedure called peripheral blood stem cells, or PBSC, in which blood cells are collected from the blood. A less common, surgical procedure takes place in an operating room. Because tissue types are inherited, it's important to match patients with donors of their own race or ethnic group.

Dutchin said it is important not only for people to sign up, but also to follow through with the donation.

“Everyone always thinks someone else will do it, but it may be you,” she said. “Your genetics may be so unique that you may match a patient who's waiting for you.”

A training session on how to register marrow and organ donors is scheduled to happen at 7 p.m. Jan. 23 at Mt. Ararat Baptist Church in Larimer. It will be followed by a drive to sign up potential donors Feb. 13 and 14 at sites and times to be determined.

Robert Morris will hold a memorial service for Crawley at 4 p.m. Feb. 7 in Sewall Center on the campus, where details of signing up for the registry will be discussed.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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