Palm Beach Gardens man's life puts spotlight on need for Hispanic bone marrow donors

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Even while he was fighting for his life, a Palm Beach Gardens man was working to save more lives than just his own. 

In April, we told you about Manny Valdez, a husband, a father, a son, and a brother who was battling leukemia. In August, Manny passed away. Because he was Hispanic, he faced a huge challenge find a perfect bone marrow match for a transplant.

"I miss him desperately. I can't tell you how much. He's my best friend, the love of my life, I love him a lot, but just trying to get through every day," said Kelly Valdes, Manny's wife. 

Kelly said this May a doctor told Manny that if he had a bone marrow match, at the time, he could undergo a transplant. 

"If you had a full match right now you're in enough of a remission state, where we could give you a transplant right now. So knowing that he could have gotten that transplant, it's tough," said Kelly. 

Manny was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a type of blood cancer that starts in the cells of the bone marrow. The only way to 'cure' it so to speak, is to get a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. 

"Tissue type is inherited like the color of our eyes or our hair so the patient’s best chance of finding a genetic match lies with people of the same ethnic heritage," said Jay Feinberg, Founder and CEO of Gift of Life.

Gift of Life is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to adding donors to the bone marrow registry and helping patients with blood cancers find a bone marrow match. 

"The big challenge is making sure there's enough diversity in the registry," said Feinberg. 

Right now, minorities are under-represented in the registry, which means it's much more difficult for any minority to find a match. Manny aimed to change that. 

In an interview in April he said, "You can save someone's life pretty easily."

"They can save yours," said NewsChannel 5's Michelle Quesada.

"They can save mine too, but obviously there are a lot of other people out here who need help as well, not just me," answered Manny. 

That day he called his wife Kelly his rock and she still is.

"It was very tough, you have Manny who is a big, strong, Cuban man and it [Leukemia] takes you down to a level of, you can't even imagine. And watching that person that you love so much go through what he went through is gut-wrenching," added Kelly. 

Kelly wants to raise awareness and keep Manny's memory alive by encouraging Hispanics to register to donate bone marrow. 

"There is actually a 1 in 4 chance that you’ll match a sibling, but the reality is that for 70 percent of the patients they don’t have a family member who is a match and they have to look to unrelated donors, total strangers that have given of themselves to join the registry," added Feinberg.

Feinberg is also a leukemia survivor. He started his own drives 22 years ago to find his perfect match. The best way to find a bone marrow match is to look at donors with your same background. 

"It's really very simple to also become a bone marrow stem cell donor through a cheek swab," said Feinberg. 

When you sign up to receive a kit to join the registry, you get four cotton swabs. You swab each corner of your mouth with a different swab and you place them back into the kit, seal the kit, fill out the information on it and send it back. It's that simple. If you're a match, you will be contacted. The process to donate stem cells for a transplant is as simple as donating blood. There is no hospitalization, no cutting or stitching. 

Manny could not find a match, but his wife hopes more Hispanics will register. 

"I don't want anyone else to go through this," said Kelly. "I will keep his memory alive and try to save as many people as I can, because that's what he wanted." 

CALL TO ACTION:

On Saturday, October 7,  there will be a bone marrow drive at Peter Blum Family YMCA in Boca Raton, 6631 Palmetto Circle South, Boca Raton, FL 33433 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. The event is a free, family event to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. There will be bone marrow swab kits at the event. 

On Sunday, Gift of Life is teaming up with a local pastor in memory of his wife to host a virtual drive. More information here

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