A Swab of Hope: The Story of Sam and Alex Kimura

UT students sign up to be a bone marrow donor. 

UT students sign up to be a bone marrow donor. 

With a pen and cotton swab in hand, almost a hundred people stood in line around various tables within the Hogg Auditorium, with hopes that they would a bone marrow match for Sam Kimura, an anemic patient who is in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant.

By Vianney Torres

Photos by Emily Nash

Alex Sheen, founder of the organization "Because I Said I Would."

Alex Sheen, founder of the organization "Because I Said I Would."

On Wednesday Nov. 11, students gathered in the Hogg Auditorium for a special presentation that featured guest speakers Alex Sheen, and Sam and Alex Kimura. Sponsored by TexasThon, the event focused on raising cancer awareness and funding.

Alex Sheen started the night off with a speech. Sheen is the founder of a nonprofit organization called “Because I Said I Would.” Sheen’s organization was created in honor of his deceased father and works to hold people accountable to their commitments.

Through promise cards with only the words “Because I Said I Would” on them, Sheen has helped transform the lives of millions across in the world. Each card is intended to hold a “promise” written on it that’s to be given to someone else and received back when they have followed through with their promise. “Our organization works with schools, drug addiction centers, and charity foundations,” Sheen says. “We are starting chapters around the world so that people can make promises wherever they are.”

Concluding his presentation, Sheen introduced the final speakers of the night, sisters Sam and Alex Kimura. In their presentation, the two discussed their organization “Sharing America’s Marrow” and their yearlong journey across America. In high school Sam, now 23, was diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia — a disease that can only be cured through a bone marrow transplant. Sam has been registered on the National Bone Marrow registry but has had no luck finding a match.

Sisters Sam and Alex Kimura. Sam is currently searching to find her match to receive a bone marrow transplant. 

Sisters Sam and Alex Kimura. Sam is currently searching to find her match to receive a bone marrow transplant. 

A simple cotton swap test is used to find matches for bone marrow donors. 

A simple cotton swap test is used to find matches for bone marrow donors. 

To find a possible match, Sam and Alex sold both of their cars, bought a van and set out for a road trip along with their best friend and next-door neighbor Taylor Shorten. Beginning in January, the three have been visiting universities in all 50 states. Younger people between the ages of 18 and 44 are more likely to be a successful match. The University of Texas at Austin was Sam and Alex’s 47th stop in their journey to finding a possible match for Sam. “We’ve been travelling around the country this whole year and thought Austin would be a great place to do this,” Alex says. “So far here, we’ve received over a hundred of possible bone marrow donors here.”

To sign up to be a bone marrow donor there is a one page informational sheet and a swab inside of the mouth, in addition to a few other general questions. While UT’s turnout proved to be a success, the amount of people that sign up to be possible bone marrow donors varies from each visit. “We go from signing up a hundred people one day and then the next day we might sign up two people,” Sam says. “Everyday is like pulling teeth, just trying to get people to stop and hear us out and listen to what we are doing.”

Since the beginning of their journey, over 15,000 people have been signed up to be possible bone marrow donors with 137 of those people being matches for others in the National Bone Registry. “It’s hard because the odds seem so small,” Alex says. “We’ve registered over thousands of people and have only found a hundred or so matches. But really, if we save one life then the entire trip would be worth it.”

Taylor Shorten on the left joined Sam and Alex on their cross country trip. 

Taylor Shorten on the left joined Sam and Alex on their cross country trip. 

Alex and Sam said that their journey so far has been the hardest, but most rewarding year of their lives. From attending concerts to seeing the world’s largest ball of twine to visiting Zion National Park, the sisters agree that the adventure so far has been a whirlwind. “We’ve seen a lot of things that we never thought we would be able to see and we’ve met a lot of people we didn’t think we’d ever meet,” Sam says. “There are times where we feel like we’re on the greatest adventure ever and some times when we don’t think we are going to make it through.”

One of those times was Alex and Sam’s visit to the University of Georgia. Sitting in 30 degree weather, the sisters were being rejected left and right and ignored while trying to explain their cause. It was at that instance when they questioned whether or not they could continue their journey. But knowing that their cause would help others in need and potentially Sam, the sisters continued their journey and began to give each other pep talks once a week. “It’s just really special seeing the faces of people who have found transplants,” Sam says.

UT students line up to sign up as bone marrow donators. 

UT students line up to sign up as bone marrow donators. 

It’s still unknown if the day will come that Sam will find the perfect bone marrow match for her. Sam tends not to think about it an effort to not to get her hopes up. “Working in this industry for five years, it would be cool to eventually find a match, though I’ve been taught not to expect anything from it,” Sam says. “But, knowing that there is a person in this world that matches my DNA is kind of like ‘wow.’ I would want to know more about them like whether or not they’re a boy or a girl and where they’re from, what they’re like, and what their hobbies are.”

Alex on the other hand is more optimistic. She often thinks about the day when a successful match is found. “When I found out I wasn’t a match for Sam, I fell to the ground and cried,” Alex says. "But if the day comes when I find out that there is a match, I’m sure that I’ll have the exact same reaction and fall to the ground in tears of joy.”

For more information on how you can help Sam and the Sharing America’s Marrow organization, you can visit www.sharingamericasmarrow.com