SAVE A MOM’S LIFE– AND LEARN HOW TO GET PEOPLE TO GIVE
By Maia Szalavitz
April 26 2010
Bone marrow can now be donated by giving blood.
Irene Katrandjian, a 52-year-old mother of three, never thought she
might need a stem cell transplant herself someday when she joined
a donor registry several years back. "I heard that a little boy
needed stem cells. I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t you help?’ To me, it was
Now, her children and others are conducting a stem cell blood drive
to save Katrandjian’s life.
The New Jersey SAT tutor, suffers from a rare form of blood cancer
called "peripheral T cell lymphoma."
Here, I’ll provide more info about her particular case and how you
can help save a life right now — but I also want to explore some of
the factors most likely to produce empathy and altruistic behavior
and how you can use them to motivate people (including yourself and
your kids) to be kinder and consequently, healthier, too.
Although she spent two hours a day at the gym six days a week and felt
like she was in great shape, Katrandjian had become concerned about a
"pea sized" lump in her right leg. A doctor told her not to worry —
but she sought a second opinion and was diagnosed in 2008.
Unfortunately, while they worked at first, chemotherapy and a
transplant of her own stem cells did not keep the rampaging disease
at bay for long. A recently approved drug developed by her doctor,
Owen O’Connor, chief of medical oncology at NYU, called pralatrexate
has put Katrandjian into the state of remission required for her
to be able to benefit from a transplant. "She’s on that now and is
responding very nicely," says O’Connor.
But without finding a matching donor, the drug alone won’t help in
the long run. "If she doesn’t get a transplant, she will die," her
Until recently, many people were reluctant to donate stem cells
because they had to be taken from bone marrow, a process that requires
extracting the marrow from a donor’s hip bone.
"It’s much easier now," says O’Connor, explaining that this changed
over the last five to ten years. Today, a donor who matches usually
only has to give blood. And to find out if you’re a match, all you
have to do is fill out this form on this website and a kit to take a
painless DNA sample from your saliva will be mailed. (I’ve just done
For a matching donor, blood is retrieved just like in a normal blood
donation through an IV — though the process here takes a bit longer.
>>From the IV, the stem cells are removed by a machine and the same
blood — now minus the stem cells — is returned through an IV in
the opposite arm.
O’Connor says, "Everyone should donate with eye to helping. Your
modest discomfort compared to that of a patient who will die if they
don’t get a transplant, should be put in context. Making it easy is
important if it helps–but you have to think that you’re investing
your time and cells to help someone who’s having anything but an easy
time. The bottom line still has to be a plea to help someone in a
situation you pray to God you’re never in."
Katrandjian is Armenian — so people of that descent are especially
encouraged to give, as genetically, they would be more likely to be
So, what’s the best way to get people to give and help others?
Katrandjian’s story actually contains many of the key elements. For
one, studies find that the easier and less painful it is to give
(blood v. bone marrow, free mail-back kits v. having to go somewhere),
the more likely it is that people will do so.
Second, people almost never give "generically" — if I tell you that
thousands of people are dying every year from a rare disease and you
can help by giving blood, you’re quite unlikely to be moved unless you
are an extraordinarily compassionate person. As Stalin coldly quipped,
"One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic."
But when people hear about a specific case — like that of a New
Jersey mom with three kids — they are much more likely to give.
Indeed, research by psychologist Paul Slovic finds that people given a
photo of a person in need give money as those shown statistics. Even
including statistics can reduce giving–so if you want to find out
more about how many people have the condition that Katrandjian does,
I’m not including it here!
Another factor that matters, sometimes unfortunately, is how we see
the victim. People are much more likely to help those who they see
as "deserving" — mothers, for example, like Katrandjian who have
given to others are far more likely to receive, too. Children —
like four-year-old Charlotte Conybear of Philadelphia, who also needs
a transplant — are especially likely to benefit.
While that’s fair in some cases, it can also be problematic if
we aren’t careful. Determining who is "deserving" can be a moral
minefield — but it’s something that has to be considered when we
are trying to encourage compassionate behavior.
Guilt, however, can also prod giving according to some research.
Further, a connection to a specific group of people can encourage
donations — people are much more likely to give to someone who seems
"like us" than they are to give to someone who appears to be very
different. Like "deservingness," group membership is a double-edged
sword because too much focus on it can discourage giving by those not
in that group. However, it can be useful, particularly in cases like
this where the characteristic is actually relevant to the probability
of the donation being useful.
In this instance, people in other minority groups are particularly
urged to give because all minorities are under-represented in stem
cell banks and changing this will benefit everyone.
Recognizing that giving is healthy — even if you have to lose a bit
of blood — also encourages altruism.
Research shows that people who volunteer to help others, who have
stronger relationships and feel the sense of purpose that giving
brings actually live longer than those who do not.
Finally, there’s symmetry: most people have a deep sense of justice
and we like to help when it feels like we can right a wrong.
Considering the genocidal terror Katrandjian’s people have faced,
it feels life-affirming to give blood to save life in this context.
I just signed up to donate — and I hope you will, too! (Oh yeah,
and personal appeals from someone we feel some sort of connection to
can help, in addition so if this makes it more likely for you to give,
I certainly encourage it!).