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February 2014

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Local 3 Member Beats Cancer with Help from
Friends and Strangers

New York Local 3 member Kenny Young went in for his annual physical in September 2012: blood pressure, breathe in, breathe out, give a little blood and then back to work on the electrical maintenance crew at NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center. A few days later, however, Young's doctor called him and said he needed to come back. Immediately.

"That was the worst part of the whole thing: making that drive to the doctor not knowing," Young said. "I'm sweating. I'm thinking, 'What could it be?'"

Young, 41 years old at the time, had more tests and the news was bad: leukemia, a cancer of the blood. Normal bone marrow produces a mix of the red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body, white blood cells that fight off infections and platelets that stop bleeding, billions of them every day. Young's bone marrow was furiously pumping out half-formed white blood cells that couldn't protect him from disease and, over time, would overwhelm and kill whatever healthy marrow was left.

"I was shocked. He looked fine," said Greg Rodman, who started working with Young at the World Trade Center in 1993. "But he was totally upbeat. Once he knew what it was, he was totally confident."

Every year, more than 48,000 people are diagnosed with leukemia, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Medical advances in recent decades have quadrupled the overall five-year survival rate, from 14 percent in 1960 to nearly 60 percent now. But each year, according to the American Cancer Society, more than 13,000 people die from the disease, many of them children.

Young had a particularly aggressive form — acute myeloid leukemia — which has a much bleaker outlook: fewer than 25 percent survive five years. Two weeks after that routine checkup, he started chemotherapy.

Unlike many cancers, there is a treatment for leukemia that promises much more than just a remission. If a suitable donor could be found and the patient is strong enough to tolerate the intense chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant has the potential to cure the disease.

"The doctors said, 'No fooling around. You're young, still strong: you're getting a transplant, '" Young said.

For a successful transplant, donor and patient must have a short stretch of identical genetic code, the 10 genes that determine the mix of proteins that create the surface of all the cells in the body called the human leukocyte antigen type, said Airam da Silva, president of the Icla da Silva Foundation, which recruits bone marrow donors and provides support to leukemia patients and their families.

A perfect match is like a secret handshake that allows the new cells to quietly slip into place and get to work. If they aren't identical, the patient's immune system will attack the transplanted cells.

Since we share so much genetic information with our relatives, biological family members are the first place doctor's look for a donor. But da Silva says 70 percent of patients don't find a match in their family. That was the case for Young.

A national registry of the HLA types from volunteer bone marrow donors was established in 1986. The registry — maintained by the nonprofit Be the Match — now holds the names and profiles of more than 10 million Americans. It is part of an international network that lets doctors search donor registries from 36 countries containing the HLA types of more than 25 million volunteers.

Finding a Donor

More than 75 percent of the time, da Silva said donating bone marrow cells is a lot like giving plasma or platelets. In the week before the procedure, donors are given shots to increase production of bone marrow cells. A tube carries blood into a machine that separates the bone marrow cells and sends everything else back to the donor. The process takes several hours but they go home the same day. This is what Young's donor did.

For the other 25 percent, marrow cells have to be harvested from inside the bone. Donors are given general anesthesia and a syringe is inserted into the hip bone.

The cells are sealed in a plastic bag, and then driven or flown to the cancer patient. Implanting the cells just requires attaching the bag to the patient's IV.

"All it takes is 40 minutes, but getting there that took a long time. That was hard," Young said.

Young's doctors did not find a match on the American registry, but they did find a match: a 29-year-old man in Germany. The transplant was set for March.

In preparation for the transplant, all the bone marrow in Young's body, healthy and sick, had to be killed. But after four months of an experimental chemotherapy, it wasn't enough. A month before the procedure, Young was admitted to the hospital to begin a more aggressive chemotherapy.

"That was rough chemo. Hard chemo. That was tough," Young said.

Young lost his hair, was exhausted, weak and vulnerable to infections.

And it didn't work. Too much of his bone marrow survived.

"We talked a lot, and I never once heard him ask, 'Why me?' Rodman said. "I don't know how I would react, but after seeing how positive he was, I would try to emulate Kenny."

The transplant was rescheduled for June. Again he entered the hospital a month early. Again he was given daily doses of chemo. But this time, it worked.

"I kept thinking about the donor, how he waited for me for six months and got nothing for it," Young said.

One June 5th, at 4 p.m. the cells landed at Newark airport, made their way through customs, arriving at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell in Manhattan four hours later.

"It's amazing. A little plastic bag with 30 million cells saves your life," Young said.

After the procedure, walking 100 feet left Young exhausted. But within weeks, the new marrow was producing new cells. Within a few months, his blood counts were normal and he was getting stronger every day. Today, there is no sign of leukemia.

"Am I cured? I don't know but did I beat cancer? Yes. That's good enough for me," Young said.

Young plans to meet his donor as soon as the one-year waiting period required by the registry expires.

"I'm going to Germany or bringing him here. No doubt," Young said. "His DNA is keeping me alive."

Taking Care of Our Own

Despite an 11-month disability leave, one thing Young never had to worry about was paying his medical bills, which he said were more than $2 million. Young says most of the people he met in the hospital lost their coverage and their jobs.

When Young's disability insurance lapsed after six months he continued to be covered by the local's pension and hospitalization plan for an additional eighteen months, said Local 3 Business Manager Christopher Erikson.

"That is what belonging to a strong union with good benefits is all about," Erikson said. "Kenny was a hard worker and an active member. He's a union guy who held up his side of the deal. He was able to get the help when he needed it the most."

"All I had to think about was getting better," Young said. "We're like a family, and I have a lot to be thankful for."

Young returned to 30 Rock Jan. 6. He credits the support of Rodman, general foreman Kevin Flannery and Local 3 Business Representative Jimmy Robson for making sure he could come back to his job.

"I honestly think they would have kept this job for him as long as he needed," Rodman said. "He is a tremendous worker. He is top-notch. He's a guy you don't want to lose."


New York Local 3 member Kenny Young on the day he received a life-saving bone marrow transplant, thanking the anonymous donor who saved his life.

How to volunteer to be a bone marrow donor

The American donor registry is called Be the Match. Potential donors may go to to answer some simple questions about health history. Everyone eligible after an online screening test is sent a kit containing four cotton swabs to collect cells from the inside of the cheek for DNA testing. The registry contacts potential donors if there is a patient match.

People of all backgrounds die each year without finding a match and people of all backgrounds are needed and encouraged to join the list, but there is a particular need for volunteers with African-American, Latino and Asian ancestries. There is no cost to donate and all medical expenses are covered.