Saving Natalie: Family Launches International Search for Asian Donor

Saving Natalie: Family Launches International Search for Asian DonorAutumn Tattenham
Natalie's family had been hoping for a fresh start in 2010 after battling the little gir's leukemia for nearly 18 months. But two weeks into the new year, a routine blood test caught something abnormal. An emergency bone marrow test confirmed the diagnosis -- the five rounds of chemotherapy Natalie had been put through the year before weren't enough and the leukemia was back.

Sitting in her hospital room, essentially quarantined from her friends, 8-year-old Natalie Nakatani has been shielded from the scariest part of her disease.

She doesn't know that out of the 13 million potential bone marrow donors in the world, none of them are a match for her. Or that while her greatest hope for survival is marrow from a donor of matching ethnicity, Asians make up just a small fraction of willing donors.

Natalie's family had hoped for a fresh start in 2010 after battling the little girl's acute myeloid leukemia for nearly 18 months.

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The spunky San Francisco-area girl finished her last round of chemotherapy last year and the disease was in remission. She was gaining weight and happy to be re-enrolled in school.

"Hopes were really high they were done with this," close family friend Maritza Ruiz Kim told ABCNews.com.

But two weeks into the new year, a routine blood test caught something abnormal. An emergency bone marrow test confirmed the diagnosis -- the five rounds of chemotherapy Natalie was put through the year before weren't enough and the leukemia was back.

Recovering from two rounds of chemotherapy that cost her a head of hair, Natalie spends her time in a rainbow and butterfly-decorated room -- a gift from her grandparents and friends -- pouring through the Boxcar Children book series and playing bingo via teleconference with the other children in the hospital.

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She misses her brother and her friends, who are not allowed in her room because of fears of the swine flu and other germs, and is looking forward to going home.

But getting out of quarantine solves only one problem for Natalie.

Doctors told her family their little girl now needs a bone marrow transplant. Her parents, Grant and Tammy Nakatani, and 5-year-old brother Sean, were quickly ruled out as possible donors, making her one of the 70 percent of leukemia patients who must seek an outside match.

"With her ethnic background, just being Asian, it's difficult to find that," Kim said.

Could you be a match for Natalie Nakatani? Click here for information.

While experts say the greatest hope for Natalie, who is half-Chinese and half-Japanese, with a bit of Vietnamese in the mix, is an Asian donor, registries have been checking her against everyone.

There have been eight drives held already since her Jan. 19 diagnosis and more are planned. Her friends have set up a Web site devoted to her search as well as a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

A family friend put together a television commercial-quality video of Natalie's brother pleading for people to get tested to save his sister.

"My big sister is my superhero," Sean says in the video. "Maybe you can be hers."

They even got Jackie Chan in on the search. The action movie star filmed a yet-to-be released public service announcement for Natalie while filming in Beijing, and gave her a shout-out on a recent tweet.

Minorities Often Come Up Short in Donor Registries

Kelly Taylor, a donor recruitment coordinator with international bone marrow registry DKMS Americas, said they were contacted by Natalie's family within days of her diagnosis.

Despite Asian ethnicities making up the majority of the world's population, most potential bone marrow donors worldwide are Caucasion. Only 7 percent of the potential donors in the DKMS Americas registry are of Asian heritage. Caucasians make up 74 percent.

The reason for the disparity, Taylor said, is that the largest registries come out of the United States and Europe, mostly Caucasian countries. Vietnam, she said, doesn't even have one registry.

Africa, she said, by comparison, has just one for the entire continent and that's in South Africa.

Even within the U.S., it's difficult to find minority donors. It's a plight that was well-publicized in the case of 6-year-old Jasmina Anema, the leukemia-stricken New York City girl who inspired thousands of African-Americans to become donors.

Her cause was championed across the country and highlighted by celebrities such as Rihanna, who also became a donor after meeting Jasmina. A match was eventually found, but the cancer returned as her body attacked the new cells.

Though doctors have been careful to avoid discussing a prognosis for Natalie, instead focusing on possible treatments, her family knows how desperately a match is needed.

For Natalie's part, she has astounded her doctors with a constant curiosity about her illness and treatment.

"She's very curious, very smart," Kim said. And stuck in a hospital, "she's bored out of her mind."

Her family and friends will keep going until they find a match, something Taylor said happens only for four out of 10 people.

"I'm really moved by how many complete strangers are stepping up to the plate," Kim said. "She knows there are people she's never met working to help her."