I was alone with my doctor in the hospital when he told me I had no bone marrow match in the world. I cried a lot that day. I was admitted two weeks ago, after recovering from acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive blood cancer. As a husband, father, and criminal prosecutor, I have dedicated my life to caring for my loved ones and protecting my community. Now, leukemia was life threatening, and there was no one who could save me from it.
Throughout COVID-19, I voluntarily endured the isolation and brutal side effects of chemotherapy in the hopes of receiving a bone marrow transplant in order to survive a little longer for my family. Without a match, all my sacrifices felt meaningless. No transplant meant that the cancer would return soon after chemotherapy treatment ended. I was haunted by thoughts of leaving my wife alone to raise our three wonderful daughters.
Thankfully, my brother, who was initially ineligible to be my donor, as a cancer survivor, was eventually allowed to be my match. Ten months after the transplant, I am slowly regaining my strength with the hope of living a normal and cancer-free life. Every day I am grateful for waking up my family. Every day I am grateful that my brother allowed me this time.
According to Be the Match, every year 18,000 Americans are diagnosed with life-threatening blood cancers and other diseases that can only be cured with a bone marrow transplant. Seven out of 10 are unable to find a relative, which means they must find an unrelated donor. Since patients are genetically matched, most are likely to be donors of similar ethnic background. Minority patients have a much lower chance of finding a matching donor than Caucasians. Per Be the Match, Caucasians have a 79% chance of finding a match – as do 48% for Hispanics, 47% for Asians, and 29% for Blacks.
As an Asian American, I saw firsthand how difficult it was to find matches. Determined to find a solution to help all patients, especially patients from minority communities, I sat on my hospital bed and drafted a state bill that would later be named “Charlie’s Law.”
Assemblyman Evan Low’s AB 1800 will allow 18- to 40-year-old Californians, applying for or renewing their California driver’s license or ID, to become a bone marrow donor by checking a box, much like organ donation. Be the Match will then send a kit to the donor’s home. The donor will swab the inside of their cheek and send the kit back to Be the Match where their genetic information will be stored in a secure national database that can be accessed by cancer doctors when they need to provide one for their patients. Matches need to be found. Using the California Department of Motor Vehicles registration process will significantly increase the reach of all potential donors.
Given California’s ethnic and genetic diversity, donors received through this bill will help patients not only in California but across the country – particularly in minority communities.
Once a match has been identified, the donor can accept or decline to participate – without any financial or legal obligations. If Match chooses to participate, medical advances in harvesting donor stem cells for transplant no longer require anesthesia or a spinal tap. Instead, it can be done by collecting the donor’s peripheral blood while he or she watches TV for a few hours.
Charlie’s Law would ensure that any patient waiting for a bone marrow transplant would not hear that they had no choice. Please urge your legislators to support this bill, which is supported by Be the Match, the California Catholic Conference, City of Hope, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Stanford Health Care and other organizations. The life of the patients depends on it.
Charlie Huang is the deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County who received a bone marrow transplant in 2021.