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Louisville woman shares story on bone marrow transplant, raises awareness on health inequities

Ethnicity plays a role in finding a match
Louisville woman shares her journey
Posted at 5:36 AM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-14 14:14:43-05

LOUSIVILLE, Colo. — For more than a decade, Tommi McHugh worked with some of the sweetest and strongest patients at Children’s Hospital in Aurora.

“To educate them on their diagnosis and the treatment plan and talking about what chemo is and how it works, and why you lose hair,” McHugh said.

In all her years, she never imagined being in the same position as many of her patients, but almost two years ago she started feeling intense pain.

“On June 1, I started having the worst back pain I've ever experienced in my life,” McHugh said.

Time went on and doctors couldn’t find a cause. McHugh also started losing weight, but her blood work wasn’t showing anything.

“Finally, in late August, we decided to do a bone marrow biopsy. It showed... that my bone marrow wasn't working, and it still took a little bit longer to figure out that it was AML,” McHugh said.

AML is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

“I was so sick that I never really had a chance to process at that point,” McHugh said.

She returned home but only for a few weeks as her condition continued to worsen. The next step for doctors was a bone marrow transplant.

“My sister was a very solid match for me, but the complication there was that she had been very, very sick in the very beginning of COVID,” McHugh said.

After finding it would be safe for her sister to donate, she did. It was a gift of love and life.

“She often says that she thinks it's crazy when I say 'thank you,' and I say, 'well, truly, Amy, you were my only chance of getting better,'” McHugh said.

But McHugh says many people in her position face obstacles to get the care they need.

“Ethnicity is a huge component of finding a match, and different ethnicities have different chances of survival simply because there are fewer people of different ethnicities registered,” McHugh said.

The National Marrow Donor Program says African Americans have a 29% chance of finding a match compared to 48% of Latinos and 79% of white people. For McHugh, raising awareness will help others the same way she was helped in a time of need.

“I feel like that just anybody who's in a position to register needs to register so that everybody has an equal chance of finding a match,” McHugh said.

Anyone interested can sign up for the National Marrow Donor Program here.