PUBLISHED: 4:08 PM on Wednesday, March 28, 2007
A match of generosity
Juneau boy meets life-saving bone marrow donor

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Bone marrow donor Leonard Begaii, left, made a visit to see recipient Alex Cesar.
Almost two years ago doctors diagnosed a young Juneau boy with childhood leukemia.

Alex Cesar's family learned that to survive he needed a bone marrow transplant-a problem for Alaska Natives since few of them are on the national bone marrow registry.

Juneau rallied in his support. Bone marrow drives held in the capital city and across the state registered more than 1,000 volunteer donors in a week.

The turnout generated national attention, but none yielded a perfect match.

That came from a Navajo man from New Mexico.

Twenty nine-year-old Leonard Begaii arrived in Juneau in mid-March to meet Cesar for the first time about a year and a half after donating his bone marrow.

Begaii said he originally volunteered to donate when he learned that a community member from his home near Navajo Nation had cancer.

That was in April 2005, and Begaii had never been to Alaska and didn't know Cesar's plight.

"I went to a bone marrow drive taking place near where we live for another patient who later on passed away because they couldn't find a match for him," Begaii said.

"I was told to qualify, I'd have to be put on a national list."

A few weeks later, Begaii said he was notified of a potential match. Begaii said he felt a connection to Cesar even before knowing him.

When he met the boy in person almost two weeks ago at the Juneau airport, he gave him a big hug.

It was Cesar's aunt Andrea Quinto who raised funds and airline miles to bring Begaii and eight members of his family to Juneau for the meeting.

She admits puzzling over how Begaii and Cesar have the same bone marrow.

The best match usually comes from a close family member, and although at least a dozen of Cesar's relatives were tested, none were close enough.

"It's a total miracle that Leonard is a match because Alex is not full Klinkit, he is Klinkit-Filipino.

"They think the Navajos originally came from the coast of Alaska and Canada. Maybe that's how Alex became a match with a full blooded Navajo," she said.

Cesar had the transplant 18 months ago and spent nine months in Seattle Children's Hospital being treated. He returned to Juneau in February 2006.

Now he's a first grader at Glacier Valley Elementary School.

His mother Rachael Dugaqua said her son had pneumonia in early March, but otherwise he's doing very well. He celebrated his eighth birthday March 17 with Begaii as a guest of honor.

Begaii also was recognized by the Juneau City Assembly, which named him an honorary citizen. The state legislature also honored the Good Samaritan.

Meanwhile, Quinto, who organized the first bone marrow drives that generated a huge response, put together another one at the Tlingit and Haida Community Center in Juneau on March 24, to benefit others in need of a transplant. She said there remains an urgent need for Native Alaskans on the national registry, and the technology has made it much easier for people in rural villages to volunteer.

Donors can order test kits online. When it arrives, they collect DNA by swabbing their cheek using long Q tip like devices. They return the swabs to the designated blood center, and it sends back results.

"Every day that's lost, it's harder for patients. If your match is not on registry at time you're sick, you're losing valuable time," Quinto said.

According to the latest available statistics from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, between 1996 and 2003, 68 Alaska children contracted leukemia. Fourteen died of the disease.

Quinto spent time with Cesar in the Seattle Children's Hospital before he had the bone marrow transplant surgery and at the time there were five children from Southeast Alaska there being treated for leukemia.

"The nurses said it used to be rare to see Southeast Alaska children, but something had changed. They were flabbergasted by all of us," she said.