Maui EMT’s stem cell donation saves Australia woman’s life

Be the match

Wearing a T-shirt that reads “My sister’s battle is my battle,” Wailuku EMT Wayne Segundo donates stem cells at the Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children on Oahu in March. The donation went to a 39-year-old cancer patient in Australia whom Segundo calls his “future sister.” Photos courtesy of Wayne Segundo

Wailuku emergency medical technician Wayne Segundo often wonders what life is like for the 39-year-old cancer patient in Australia who received a donation of his stem cells.

Segundo has never met her, and he’s not sure when he will, but he already considers her family.

“I would love to hear her story and call her my sister,” said Segundo, 47, who grew up the second of three brothers. “She would be an addition to our family for sure.”

It’s Segundo’s job to save lives. He’s used to jumping in an ambulance and rushing to the aid of people who have nearly drowned or been in terrible car crashes. But, back in March, he saved a life not from the back of an ambulance but from a hospital bed as blood circulated from his body through a tube.

Now, he’s among first responders nationwide who are sharing their stories as part of a campaign by Be The Match — a program that connects patients with lifesaving bone marrow donations — to draw more first responders to its registry.

Wayne Segundo enjoys a lunch outing with 10-year-old Kyle Crawford of San Mateo, Calif., on Maui on Saturday, three years after Segundo’s brother made a lifesaving bone marrow donation to the boy. Segundo said that he hopes he can someday share a similar connection with the unknown “sister” he donated to in Australia.

“Our job is to help the sick and injured, but now we can help in a different way,” Segundo said. “A year, 10 years later, you could be called upon and you could literally save a life, cure a disease for this one person who is in such need, and hope one day you can see each other face to face.”

In 2013, Segundo was wandering through the vendor booths at the Maui Fair when he ran into a friend who was volunteering for Be The Match, which is operated by the nonprofit National Marrow Donor Program. His friend convinced him to register and mail in a cheek swab. Four years later, Segundo got a call that he was a match.

“I really didn’t know what that meant,” Segundo said. “I totally forgot what I had done.”

In the United States, more than 1.2 million people people are either living with or in remission from a blood cancer, which includes leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma, according to the National Foundation for Cancer Research. Blood cells are produced within bone marrow, the tissue found within bones, so for patients with blood cancer, a marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant can be lifesaving. However, 70 percent of patients do not have a fully matched donor in their family and thus rely on strangers to join the registry, according to data from Be The Match. Patients are most likely to match the tissue type of someone who shares their ethnic background. Segundo, who is Chinese, Hawaiian and Caucasian, said that he was surprised that he matched with someone in Australia.

The 39-year-old woman had been diagnosed with a rare blood disease called acute myeloid leukemia. According to the Leukaemia Foundation in Australia, the disease accounts for 0.8 percent of all diagnosed cancers.

Segundo is also in a rare category — about 1 in every 430 members (less than a quarter of 1 percent) of the U.S. Be The Match Registry will end up donating to a patient.

Helping others is in Segundo’s blood. After graduating from Maui High School in 1988, he served in the U.S. Navy for four years before becoming an EMT in 2000. So he didn’t hesitate to respond when he got the call from Be The Match.

The HI Bone Marrow Donor Registry flew Segundo to Oahu, where every morning he drove to the Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children to receive two shots to help produce more stem cells from his bone marrow.

“They encouraged me to eat a lot of ice cream and drink milk, because they wanted me to up my calcium levels,” Segundo said.

Doctors told Segundo to expect aches and flulike symptoms, but Segundo said he felt fine every day except the last. On March 7, after five days of shots, Segundo was hooked up to a machine that drew blood from his arm, extracted the stem cells and returned the blood to his body.

“It was great. I fell asleep,” said Segundo, who wore a shirt that read “My sister’s battle is my battle” during the four-hour procedure.

The process was more than successful. A nurse told Segundo that they needed 10 million stem cells for the patient in Australia; Segundo was able to give 55 million.

“They were kind of taken aback by that,” he said.

Segundo said it was “very humbling” to donate and that he would do it again. He and his brothers are all veterans who have signed up for the bone marrow registry. In fact, it was Segundo’s younger brother who propelled him to donate.

“He’s kind of like my role model,” Segundo said. “I said, ‘You know what, my younger brother did it, and I’m doing it too.'”

In 2014, Kawika Segundo donated bone marrow to then-7-year-old Kyle Crawford of San Mateo, Calif. A Navy lieutenant, Kawika Segundo met Crawford a year later and gifted the boy with his Purple Heart medal. The families keep in touch; in fact, they had lunch on Maui just last week, said Wayne Segundo, who hopes to someday have a similar connection with his “future sister.”

Lauren Mueller, a public relations specialist for Be The Match, said that the woman “is now 6 months post-transplant and living a normal, healthy life.”

“Maintaining confidentiality during the patient’s first year of recovery is very important because it protects both the donor and patient from any undue pressure,” Mueller said. “Sometimes for international donors, the confidentiality period lasts two years depending on location.”

While Be The Match is seeking first responders through its Register & Respond campaign, the organization also needs “more young people of diverse racial and ethnic heritage,” as transplant doctors request people between the ages of 18 and 44 more than 95 percent of the time. In the registry, nearly 9 million members, or 54 percent, are white. The third-largest group is Asians at 882,000, or 6 percent. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are the smallest group at 19,000, or 0.1 percent.

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* Colleen Uechi can be reached at