By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
In September, Kazumi Schmidgall thought she had contracted COVID-19.
“I thought the symptoms were very much like COVID, so went to urgent care but turned out negative,” she explained in an interview with The Rafu Shimpo.
A subsequent trip to the emergency room revealed a dire diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia and a lung infection.
“A young oncologist told me that my life would end in two weeks without treatment,” she said, recalling receiving the shocking news.
She was immediately put on blood transfusions due to extremely low hemoglobin. Now Schmidgall is seeking a life-saving bone marrow donor from members of the Japanese and Japanese American communities.
“I would really, really appreciate if anybody is willing to donate bone marrow at bethematch.com Looking for Japanese descent, 10/10 100% match,” she said.
Dr. Tom Amatruda, a hematology/oncology specialist, explained, “It is more likely to find someone who matches from the Japanese population. The tissue types are specific for different ethnic groups. Therefore, if many Japanese American people donate blood samples for testing, it may be possible to identify somebody from the Japanese American population who is a good match.”
For Schmidgall, the need is urgent. Currently her doctors are planning to do a transplant procedure in early January.
“Because they cannot wait anymore,” she said.
Schmidgall is originally from Tomioka City, Gunma Prefecture. She lives with her family in Arizona, teaching math at Cesar Chavez High School. She taught Japanese in New York and for 23 years was a teacher on Saturdays at Arizona Gakuen.
“Try my best to make it fun, most likely they [were]pushed to come to Japanese school by parents, not of their own will. Some are ready to go back to Japan, so I try to make lesson as fun as possible,” she said.
Little Tokyo-based Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M) has been helping Schmidgall get the word out. JACL chapters locally and nationwide have also been sharing the message.
Athena Mari Asklipiadis, A3M director of development and communications, is grateful to Schmidgall for sharing her story.
“Culturally, sometimes Asians and the Japanese American communities are apprehensive to share their story publicly of having a life threatening disease,” Asklipiadis said. “The stigma of asking for help … hurts the (bone marrow) registry. Hopefully, Kazumi is helping not only herself but also other Japanese or Asian patients who don’t share their story.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted how organizations like A3M reach out to prospective donors. Normally events such as summer festivals are where many donors sign up. A3M is currently hosting a Month of Miracles, a holiday fundraiser to deliver gifts to ten patients battling blood cancers and other diseases.
Tissue typing can be done through a cheek swab. Potential donors must be between the ages of 18 and 44; be willing to donate to any patient in need; meet health guidelines; and fill out a consent form.
Now Schmidgall is preparing for the transplant surgery by being as active as possible, including continuing to work out on a stationary bike at home.
“Trying my best to get ready for transplant. There will be no family visitations whatsoever, hospitalized at least two weeks,” she said.