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A Grieving Family Calls on Latinos to Sign Up to Donate Blood Stem Cells

Photos: Courtesy of Be the Match

Bella Sanchez loved singing, dancing and family time with her mother, father and older brothers. But her time was limited. Diagnosed at seven months with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), she died when she was two and a half years old. Still her legacy lives on.

At the time of her death, Bella was awaiting a blood stem cell transplant – a procedure that had had the potential to cure her leukemia.

Bella’s father Ray Sanchez explains that his daughter had four potential matches: two were genetically matched adult donors, and two were umbilical cord blood units that had been previously donated and banked. “But sadly, “Bella never reached remission, so she never got a transplant.”

Diagnosis

Bella loved unicorns, dancing and singing Bruno Mars’ songs. She wanted to be a cheerleader like her mother, Betsy.

The girl whose nickname was “BellaBoo,” had just started attending daycare when she got sick. At first her family thought it was a cold she couldn’t shake.  But then, “She just started getting weaker and weaker,” says her father. 

Then they took her to the hospital and bloodwork showed she had ALL. That day she was flown by helicopter to Methodist Children’s Hospital in San Antonio, over two hours away from the family’s home in Laredo. Bella spent the next two weeks in intensive care and nine months in total at the hospital.

Her treatment included several rounds of chemotherapy, lumbar puncture procedures, blood transfusions and steroids. She spent most of her “firsts” in the hospital, including walking for the first time and her first birthday.

Looking for a match

While most patients with ALL can be cured, Bella’s case was very aggressive. A blood stem cell transplant from a genetically matched donor was her only chance of finding for a cure.

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The Sanchez family was tested including Bella’s two brothers, but no one they knew was a match. Bella’s best chances of a match was with someone who shared her Hispanic heritage.

Latinos have a 46 percent chance of finding a match, compared to 77 percent chance for white patients. That’s according to Be The Match, operated by the non-profit National Marrow Donor Program, which connects patients and donor match for a life-saving blood stem cell transplant.

“There’s not much awareness in the Latino community,” Sanchez says. “I know. I was one of them and I’m trying to change that.”

He wants would-be donors to know that testing is free and easy. They simply swab their cheek with a cotton swab and send it back to a lab to be tested. Getting registered means, they’ll have the potential to help a patient and family in need.

“I want to let me people my Hispanic and Latinos know It’s not hard and you’re literally saving a life,” he says. “They don’t understand it or maybe they can’t picture it. Try to do it to possibly save someone’s life. I know once my daughter was once that child who needed that transplant.”

The family hosted many donor drives for Bella. In her honor, they’re still raising awareness for about the unique opportunity to save someone’s life. They started a non-profit called “Smiles from Heaven” and they continue to help children and families affected by pediatric cancer.

Saving a life

Now Bella’s father is getting the chance to potentially save someone’s life. Bella’s death has been hard on the whole family. Sanchez, an Army combat veteran, was struggling in the aftermath of his daughter’s death. He prayed and asked God for a sign that Bella was in heaven. Soon after, he got a call from Be The Match informing him he’s a match for baby girl battling a a rare blood disorder.

“It was very emotional,” he says, noting he’d registered for Be The Match after Bella was diagnosed.

Now he may get the chance to help another family. In a Facebook post, he wrote, “I’m praying everything goes well and that I can hopefully save this little girl’s life.”

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