Natalie Nakatani Loses Battle with Leukemia


Natalie Nakatani

PLEASANT HILL, Calif. — The campaign to save the life of 9-year-old Natalie Nakatani, who suffered from an aggressive form of leukemia, has come to a tragic end. She passed away on the morning of Dec. 19.

Maritza Ruiz Kim, a family friend, broke the news on the campaign’s Facebook page on Dec. 20: “The Nakatanis lost their beautiful, strong and courageous little girl Natalie. Thank you to all the people who fought so hard for her to find a match for bone marrow. Thank you to all the people who prayed. Thank you to (parents) Grant and Tammy and (brother) Sean for being the best family Natalie could ever have. Thank you to God for giving her a new start, free of pain, fear and sorrow. Please continue to pray for the Nakatani family.”

The Alameda-based Asian American Donor Program, which seeks bone marrow donors for Asians with life-threatening blood diseases, noted that Natalie, who was of Japanese and Chinese ancestry, was diagnosed with AML (acute myeloid leukemia) when she was 7. After five rounds of chemotherapy, she was in remission, but the cancer returned in January 2010. She had a bone marrow transplant in April 2010 and was in remission for almost a year, but she suffered a relapse.

“She left peacefully and will live forever in everyone’s hearts,” AADP said in a statement. “We will continue to fight for patients like Natalie and help find their bone marrow match.”

Her case illustrated the plight of Asian Americans requiring a marrow transplant. Unlike a blood transfusion, a marrow transplant requires a tissue match between patient and donor. Natalie’s parents and brother were not a match, but the next best chance of finding one was among other people of Asian descent.

Groups like the international registry DKMS Americas, AADP in the Bay Area and Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches in Southern California have been working to increase the number of Asians and other people of color on the national registry of marrow donors. Cheek swabs were taken for testing at various community events.

A number of celebrities helped spread the word about Natalie, including Alyssa Milano and Jackie Chan. Friends and family set up a “Hope for Natalie” website as well as a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

These donor searches have been likened to looking for a needle in a haystack, but there have been some success stories.

Kim wrote in a subsequent post, “Today we had the opportunity to have a very small memorial service for Natalie. So grateful to meet Natalie’s doctor and her nurses. Her vibrant spirit and tenacity and courage and generosity were clear in every story shared. We will be having a large public memorial soon; we just have to wait until after the new year to confirm the location that we want. We love you, Natalie. Your exuberance left an example for us to follow!”

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