VIFF 2016: Jeff Chiba Stearns' Mixed Match highlights urgency in finding mixed-race bone marrow donors

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      Back in 2007, B.C. filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns received an email from a friend about the search for a bone marrow donor for an SFU student. The student, James Lee Erlandsen, was suffering from leukemia. He was of Chinese and Caucasian descent, didn't have any siblings, and needed to find someone with a compatible match. At the time, Chiba Stearns, like most of us, didn't know anything about the complexities of the issues involved.

      Fast forward to 2016 and Chiba Stearns, who is of Japanese and European descent, is having the world premiere of his documentary Mixed Match at the Vancouver International Film Festival—which will educate audiences about the challenges that people of interracial heritage are facing in finding bone marrow donors.

      Chiba Stearns, who co-founded the Hapa-palooza festival to celebrate mixed heritage, knows all about the growing predicament that is arising within our multicultural and multiethnic country.

      "As a society, where mixed race people are the fastest growing demographic, what's happening is there's a supply and demand issue," Chiba Stearns told the Georgia Straight in an interview at the Vancouver International Film Centre. "There's a lot more people getting cancer, blood cancers, and diseases, but there's not enough people to help them find the cure, which is sometimes bone marrow, stem cell transplants."

      Filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns
      Craig Takeuchi

      Chiba Stearns explained that bone marrow transplants involve the immune system, and are not the same as blood transfusions in which blood types are matched.

      "As we mix and we blend, our DNA is getting a little more complex and when we're trying to find our genetic twin in the world, it's getting a little more difficult for people who are trying to find a bone marrow match."

      After Athena Asklipiadis saw Chiba Stearns' 2010 documentary One Big Hapa Family, which explored the nature of his interracial extended family, she contacted him to talk about her outreach organization Mixed Marrow, which recruits mixed-race people for the national bone-marrow registry.

      Mixed Match

      With a combination of interviews animated sequences, Mixed Match explores how difficult it is for mixed-race people to find compatible donors—and how simple some of the solutions are.

      First of all, Chiba Stearns explained that to become part of the registry, there aren't any needles involved. All that's needed is a Q-tip to rub against the inside of your mouth for about 20 seconds.

      "To sign up is as easy as swabbing a cheek," he said. "People think it's drawing blood but they don't do that anymore."

      Secondly, for the actual bone marrow transplant, operations are no longer involved. While potential donors once feared a painful operation that was required to extract the bone marrow, Chiba Stearns said that now all that's necessary is a five-day drug regimen to obtain bone marrow and stem cells.

      Mixed Match

      Yet another solution is to donate umbilical cord blood.

      While Chiba Stearns was making a film, he learned about the umbilical cord stem cell bank in Canada as his wife gave birth to their first daughter in 2015 (which is captured in the film).  

      "Cord blood is actually a really great way to do it because if you look at the kids being born now, so many kids in Vancouver are mixed race, which is why the cord-blood bank got set up at B.C. Women's [Hospital] because they have one of the highest rates of mixed-race children being born there," he said.

      He also pointed out that this form of donation helps to address the time gap between birth and the age of consent (donors can't join the registry until they are 17 years old) for mixed-race individuals.

      "Cord blood helps to give a secondary chance at hope for a lot of patients," he added. "Think about what it is: umbilical cord blood is medical waste. It just gets tossed out. So if you have a chance to donate it, it doesn't hurt. It can only really do benefit."

      The film, he explained, is really part of a dialogue about the implications of racial issues and medicine.

      Alex Tung is a leukemia patient who had trouble finding a compatible bone marrow donor.

      While some people may think that this issue doesn't really affect them since they're not of interracial heritage, there are numerous stories in the media of people using DNA tests to discover that their heritage is far more mixed than they previously thought.

      For instance, in the film, Chiba Stearns highlights Alex Tung, a Chinese American man with leukemia who had extreme difficulty finding a match, which suggests that he may have some ethnic heritage he was unaware of. However, when he finally found five matches in China, all of the donors backed out.

      Accordingly, the problem even extends beyond simply finding a match. City of Hope donor coordinator Lori Stancer (in Duarte, California) states in the documentary that 50 percent of donors back out for various reasons, such as changing their mind or not responding.

      The example of Tung and others in the film point out that this issue potentially concerns everyone. When it comes to what you think is your racial identity, the truth is, as Chiba Stearns puts it, "you never know."

      Or as Tung asks rhetorically in the documentary, "Nowadays…who is completely pure of anything?"

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook