Thanks to a unique partnership, the talk at a popular aboriginal youth hockey tournament in Canada this week was not all about goals, assists or wins. Saving lives was part of the action as well.
Organizers of the 41st annual Little Native Hockey League tournament teamed up with the Canadian Blood Services' OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network to recruit potential stem cell donors from among tournament attendees.
The tournament, organized by Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation, ran from March 11–15 in Sudbury, Ontario. Laura Owl, director of operations for the Sagonak Anishnawbek First Nation, said she was contacted several months ago by OneMatch representatives interested in working in the community because several First Nation individuals in Canada are awaiting stem cell transplants.
Suitable donors, however, must first be found. A patient's best chance of finding a match is via a donor with similar ancestry. Owl suggested that OneMatch officials attend the Little NHL because the tournament usually features about 2,500 players and is attended by 4,000 to 6,000 spectators.
"I knew there would be a high concentration of First Nation people at the tournament," Owl said.
More than 307,000 people are currently registered with the OneMatch network, willing to donate their stem cells to any patient in need. But only 0.9 percent of them are aboriginal. As of this week, there were 994 Canadians awaiting a stem cell transplant, 14 of them aboriginal, according to OneMatch.
In 2010, the latest statistics available, a total of 319 Canadians had received stem cell transplants. Most often stem cells are used to treat lymphoma or leukemia.
Throughout the week 19 people were cheek swabbed for testing (it takes just over a minute). Those tests are then sent to a laboratory in Ottawa. After 21 business days potential donors are informed as to whether they are a match for anyone currently in need of a transplant. If not, they remain in the system in the OneMatch database for possible future matches.
Mary Lynn Pride, a patient and transplant liasion specialist for OneMatch, came to the tournament to recruit possible donors and was pleased with the number of people who registered.
"For us, any opportunity that we have to get a person registered is a plus," she said. "To have 19 people make the commitment was a very good thing."
Sagamok Anishnawbek Chief Paul Eshkakogan was one of them. Though others did not sign up on the spot, Pride said plenty of OneMatch literature was taken away and that hopefully some of those individuals will decide to register at a later date.
"Part of the opportunity was to raise awareness in the First Nation communities," Pride said. "People took away a lot of information. Our booth was quite busy during the week."