Fulgencio Garcia among thousands who need bone marrow donors

Dr. Armen Nikogosian has a hard time believing Fulgencio Garcia can do what he does.

Though the internist’s 41-year-old patient suffers from an acute leukemia that Nikogosian describes as "an excruciating ache inside all his bones," Garcia continues to work full time as a delivery man for a seafood company that caters to casinos.

"Up until six months ago, he (Garcia) was working two full-time jobs," Nikogosian said Tuesday as he sat in his office near Spring Valley Hospital in southwest Las Vegas. "And he’s been suffering with this for five years now. It’s incredible. It’s just the way he is. He’s got three kids, and he wants to be a good dad. Somehow, he fights through the pain."

Garcia may not have much longer to fight, however.

"The disease has progressed significantly," Nikogosian said. "If the disease transforms into an even more aggressive form, he might have a year or two left."

It is that sobering prognosis that has prompted Garcia’s family and friends to hold a bone marrow donor drive Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at American Heritage Academy, 6126 S. Sandhill Road, near Tropicana Avenue.

"His disease is completely curable if he can find a matching donor," Nikogosian said. "I sure hope it works out. This could literally be a little hiccup in his past if it does."

On Monday, Garcia walked into the academy carrying 3-year-old Adrian, still too young to attend the private school that his brothers, Antonio, 13, and Sebastian, 5, attend on scholarship.

Moved by what Garcia’s wife, Rachel, told her a few months ago about her husband’s condition, Maria Luebke, an administrator at the school, did an Internet search and found that an international organization known as DKMS recruits bone marrow donors for leukemia patients.

E-mails and phone calls to the donor center’s New York office led to Saturday’s planned event.

As he holds his little boy, Garcia grimaces as he moves the sleeping child from one shoulder to another. Tears well in his eyes.

"I want to see my boys grow up," he said. "I don’t want my wife to have to do it alone."

On hand for the donor drive will be 21-year-old Aaron Vilhauer of Pahrump. Last year, he donated bone marrow at an Orange County, Calif., hospital in an outpatient procedure that saved the life of an 11-year-old boy in Maryland.

He wants people to know that donating is safe and painless.

"At first, I have to admit, I almost backed out because of rumors I heard about the pain," he said. "But I went through it and there was nothing to it. When I woke up, I didn’t think they had started yet. I went out and partied afterward."

Most bone marrow donations do not even involve surgery. About 75 percent of the time, a nonsurgical blood stem cell donation, much like donating platelets at a blood bank, is all that’s required. The surgery that Vilhauer had involved collecting stem cells from the pelvic area.

Vilhauer said he had originally signed up for a DKMS bone marrow drive at Red Rock Casino in 2008.

"I had always given blood because my mother said it was the right thing to do, so when I saw this drive to help a medical student, I said, ‘Why not?’"

The cheek swab sample taken by medical technicians did not turn out to be a match for the medical student. But his sample was placed in the Be The Match Registry overseen by the National Marrow Donor Program, which works through a network of more than 100 local and regional recruitment organizations such as DKMS.

"I had forgotten all about it, and then I got a call about a year later that I was a match for this little boy," Vilhauer said.

"I’ve never felt better about doing anything in my life," he said.

About 70 percent of people in need of a transplant do not have a matching donor in their family. That is the case with Garcia.

Only about four of 10 people who need a match each year are able to get a lifesaving transplant.

Though Hispanics such as Garcia make up approximately 15 percent of the nation’s population, they comprise just 10 percent of potential donors. Bone marrow recipients generally match the racial or ethnic group of the donor.

Garcia prays that people of all ethnic groups will decide to come to the donor drive Saturday.

Each year, more than 10,000 Americans are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma, and their best or only hope of a cure is a transplant from an unrelated donor.

Although Garcia hopes Saturday’s drive will turn out to be a lifesaver, he knows that other such drives around the country could also be what eventually saves his life.

On Feb. 6, there will be another bone marrow drive nearby in Henderson. This one will be from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Galleria Mall near J.C. Penney by the National Marrow Donor Program of Southern California and the Southwest.

Garcia is tired of having to take pain medication to get through the day. And he wishes he could go back to his second full-time job of sanitizing salad dressing machines late at night.

"We used to be able to rent a nice house, but now we have had to move into a two-bedroom apartment and we’re still having money problems," he said. "Once I get a transplant and get well, I can make the money I need to give my family a good life. They deserve that."

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@review journal.com or 702-387-2908.

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