CHIPLEY - Gracie Renfro is a self-proclaimed "daddy's girl." The rising Chipley High School sophomore says she and her father, Nick Renfro, have always shared a special bond - so it is little wonder she recently jumped at a chance to help save his life.
Nick, 37, was diagnosed in 2008 with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML), a genetic cell change that forms an abnormal gene, which turns the cell into a CML cell. According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) website, the leukemia cells grow and divide, building up in the bone marrow and spilling over into the blood. The cancer, which has three phases - chronic, accelerated, and blast crisis - is a fairly slow growing leukemia, but can change into a fast-growing, hard to treat, acute leukemia in the blast crisis phase.
For years, Nick was able to keep the cancer at bay through oral chemotherapy while in the chronic phase, but following three relapses, the family learned in April that Nick was in the blast crisis phase. He was immediately sent to Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, where he was told he needed a bone marrow transplant to fight the cancer's renewed aggression.
The family tried in vain to find a donor through national bone marrow registry, Be the Match. With a mixed Filipino and Caucasian heritage, Nick is considered a minority and learned there are not enough minority and multiracial donors registered and available for patients in need.
Nick and his wife, Jennifer, soon learned that while their three children were only a 50 percent match, they were still potential donors.
"We asked Gracie because she is the oldest," said Jennifer. "She didn't waste any time saying she wanted to donate her marrow. She was excited about helping him."
Gracie says the decision was "no problem."
"My dad and I are really close, so it is no problem for me to help like that," she said. "It wasn't really painful - I mean, it was a little, but not as painful as if I had lost my dad."
To prepare for the procedure, Nick had to under IV chemotherapy to clear as many existing cancer cells as possible. He received his oldest daughter's cells July 11, a day his family calls his "new birthday."
He and Jennifer are currently staying at the Hope Lodge in Tampa, a facility provided by the American Cancer Society for patients undergoing treatment at Moffitt and other area cancer facilities.
"Nick will have to be here 90 days post transplant," explained Jennifer. "He is on immunosuppressants because the chance of rejection is higher since Gracie was only a half match. It was risky because she wasn't a 100 percent match, but [the doctors] seem happy with his progress, and Nick is ready to get back to our life back home."
Before Nick's last relapse, he had left a 15-year career as a correctional officer to seek certification from Florida Panhandle Technical College as a mechanic, training he hopes to still receive.
"He had taken his TABE test [Test of Adult Basic Education] and was ready to register, and then he became sick," said Jennifer. "We are hoping that he can still attend after he improves."
Meanwhile, the Renfros say they are looking at the experience as a reminder to cherish each moment.
"We are grateful to have this opportunity, to go through this process together and grow from it," said Jennifer. "It has definitely changed our outlook, and the things we took for granted, we won't take for granted anymore. Things like, 'I don't have time to go outside and play with you' - That won't be happening anymore. Being away from [the children] since April gave us a better appreciation of what we've missed. Our community, friends, and family have really stepped up, and we feel like God has been with us the whole way. We really want to thank those people who have been there, from prayers, to financial assistance, to bringing the kids to visit and taking care of them."
The family also hopes to raise awareness about the shortage of minority bone marrow donors.
According to the National Marrow Donor Program, minority patients suffering from leukemia and other blood-related diseases face limited prospects of finding a donor with matching bone marrow tissue type because of the relatively low number of minorities such as Blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians/Pacific Islanders represented in the National Marrow Donor Program registry.
Through Be the Match, the registry used by the National Marrow Donor Program, 61 percent of the donors are white, 10 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 6 percent are black, 6 percent are Asian and just 4 percent are multiple races.
Given these numbers, the likelihood of matching a white patient with a donor is 97 percent. But the chances drop from there: Asians have a 72 to 88 percent chance of being matched; black patients have 66 to 76 percent chance. And while numbers are not available for mixed-race matches, the odds of multiracial patients finding a match are considerably lower.
"Minorities, in general, are very poorly represented in the NMDP," said Jaime Oblitas, manager of the National Marrow Donor Program. "For a patient to have a successful transplant, donor and patient must be compatible genetically, which sometimes only happens when they both come from the same ethnic or racial group."
But while the health professionals have the statistics, perhaps few put the need into perspective like a 15-year-old Chipley High School student:
"People need to know that there are other people out there who are sick and need help," said Gracie Renfro. "If you are able to donate, you could possibly save a life and change it forever."
The Renfros have two other children: Jaci, 10 and Pacey, 11.
To learn more about becoming a bone marrow donor, visit online: bethematch.org/