Surviving Leukemia: Juwan Dotson Finds his Match
By Dianne Anderson
Juwan Dotson is the perfect picture of health, but then again, looks can be deceiving.
Until a few months ago, the 26-year-old didn’t know he had leukemia.
Since then, Dotson has been through rounds of chemotherapy, which he said was very harsh at first because he was unable to exercise those first weeks to get ready for what was to come.
“Mentally, I wasn’t prepared for the experience. It took its toll on me,” he said. “I had some infections through the process that complicated things.”
Dotson was a winning athlete throughout his young life. He’s played football, and even his doctors are not sure how the leukemia started.
He said he was anemic, which could be connected, but certain symptoms became obvious in May. He was frequently lightheaded, his heart rate was beating fast. He didn’t feel like he was getting enough blood flow to his legs when he ran. He had headaches and blurry vision.
Dotson went into the hospital in the first week of July thinking he would go home that same day, but he didn’t leave until July 29. By the second round of chemotherapy, he understood the diagnosis, and ready to meet the challenge head on.
“I was in much better shape, I worked out for four weeks straight. I went in and got my chemo. I got up and worked out in the hospital. The process was really easier,” he said.
While everyone has some physical limitations, he said it’s all about getting into the right mental frame of mind to run the race to the finish line. Most of all, he attributes his unusually fast bone marrow match to his faith, and the faith of his family.
“My oncologist was really surprised it came that quickly. For me personally, I never had any doubts. The first two days after diagnosis I had to accept it, but my faith took over,” he said.
It’s only been a short while since the family found out about the leukemia, but for his uncle Arlington Rodgers, it seems much longer.
Rodgers had been trying to drum up support and donations for his nephew. Last week, the family was notified that a match was found through the City of Hope Be The Match database.
“It’s one of those things. I don’t even know how the blessing got here, I just know it’s a blessing,” he said. “We are definitely a praying family,”
Today, Dotson has a match, but there are so many other African Americans still waiting.
Joel Holley, City of Hope community outreach specialist, said of the 20 million donors in the registry that are ready to save a life, only 23% are Black.
He remembers back as a young phlebotomist wondering why there were never any Black donors in the chair giving blood.
“ I don’t want to sugar coat this, I don’t want to talk over your head. If we ain’t in the chair, we’re not surviving,” he said. “We need help. Only us can save us at this point.”
Through COVID, their events strictly adhere to CDC rules with social distancing both in and out of facilities. He is calling on the community to sign up with the bone marrow registry. Often, they host drive-through events where donors get swabbed inside the cheek, and they keep driving.
In Dotson’s case, he agrees that the match came unusually fast.
Typically, they must screen for the same ethnic background for the most likely match. Because many African Americans have a multi-racial background, it makes it harder to find.
“We test a sibling first, about 30% of the time a sibling will be the best match. 70% of the time, a sibling or even a twin will not match,” Holley said.
Anyone can get into the donor database by texting 61474 and type Juwanstrong in the message line.
They will receive a text code to complete an online application to be in the general registry. Questions are on nationality, weight and health. Applicants will then receive a cotton swab by mail to swab the inside of the cheek, place it back in the envelope and mail it back. That process puts applicants into the database, which will start searching for patients to find a match.
Holley said that one hindrance is the general distrust of the medical system, stemming from historic patient abuse, including the Tuskegee experiments. Another is that people worry that bone marrow transplants are painful, or that something bad can happen in the process.
He emphasizes that the process is painless for the donor, but it is more painful for the person receiving the donation.
“[There is] local anesthesia and they extract bone marrow through the hip bone, that is outpatient. You come in to donate. Four or five hours later, you go home,” he said.
Some of their blood drives are held outdoors with barriers and PPE proper protection to keep everyone safe. It’s very easy to give, and he said the City of Hope also travels and holds donor events regularly throughout the Inland Empire.
“We come to you. Got blood? We’ll travel,” he said. “There’s always a blood drive somewhere.”
To join the bone marrow database, text 61474 and type Juwanstrong in the message line.
To find local blood centers and bone marrow match events, everyone can visit www.cityofhope.com or Life Stream Blood Bank at https://www.lstream.org