The power of community organizing to improve our health
Come together, right now: UBC student Joban Bal hopes to diversify BC stem cell registry and encourage blood donation.
By Joban Bal. First-year medical student at UBC. Founder of One Blood For Life.
“I’m sorry, but we haven’t found a suitable bone marrow match.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard what could be a death sentence for a friend. And unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last. But something was different this time whenI realized I could actually make a difference. Registering as a stem cell donor could potentially provide another fighting chance for a patient. Could I do more than that? The thought nagged me.
My friend found a donor on the other side of the world through an international stem cell and bone marrow network. Later on, I learnt that another good friend of mine had had a heart transplant. What surprised me the most was how similar we were — both young South Asian males, both with a family history of heart disease. He had just graduated high school when his genetic disorder was diagnosed and a little over a decade later, a donor gave him a new chance at life.
A lack of information
Despite knowing several people who had benefited from organ and blood donations, I was surprised to learn how little my family and friends had heard about stem cell transplants or the bone marrow registry. Many of them were afraid of blood donation or registering as an organ donor. Or they simply never got around to registering.
A few years earlier, my high school in Surrey was selected for a Fraser Health pilot project where we got the opportunity to create campaigns to promote heart-healthy living. We developed projects to target the South Asian population — I loved being able to make positive change and see its impact.
With most diseases, it can often seem like prevention and treatment are in the hands of the patient and their healthcare team. But for some conditions, communities can have a huge impact on health outcomes.
While I was in second year, there was some exciting news in the field — a new technique had been created at UBC to change blood from one type to another using enzymes. There are sugars, called antigens, on the cells of A, B and AB blood types that aren’t present in type O. Enzymes from specific bacteria found in your gut can efficiently rip these sugars off of red blood cells, converting them to type O, the universal donor type.
One of the lead researchers in this work was a chemistry professor of mine, Stephen Withers. Withers shared his research at a documentary screening of Mixed Match, which I organized with Canadian Blood Services and the Center for Blood Research. The event brought together patients, families, community volunteers, students, researchers and health authority executives to discuss bringing science from the bench to the bedside.
Eventually, I decided there was more that I could do. I would take what I had learnt in high school about the importance of community health and combine it with my expanding knowledge of health sciences acquired through my studies at UBC.
So, just over three years ago, I founded the One Blood For Life Foundation to address the lack of awareness about blood and stem cell donation. During my undergrad in biology, we grew the organization to over 400 volunteers across BC, recruiting just over 1,510 new stem cell registrants and over 3,500 blood donations.
The courses I took at UBC Science helped me explain why blood donation is safe and how your body quickly replenishes its supply. I could describe how stem cells can be transplanted to replace defective bone marrow in patients with blood cancer. I could talk about HLA markers, unique proteins located on white blood cells and other tissues that are used to match donors to recipients. These markers are inherited from your parents and differ between individuals, but can be similar within ethnic groups. This underscores the importance of having potential donors from under-represented ethnic groups on stem cell and bone marrow registries.
And my fluency in Punjabi has made it easier for me to share my message of blood donation and the stem cell registry with the Sikh community in Surrey.
In the end, it wasn’t so much about what I could do, but about what we can do together. Medical care isn’t only about the individual. It’s about community. Together we can help build healthier communities and strengthen our stem cell and blood registries.