Owen Jensen found a perfect match in Laura Gintant to donate the bone marrow that saved his life. Now both are advocates for Be The Match, the national bone-marrow donor registry that brought them together.
Owen, an Omaha second-grader, plays basketball and baseball and is on a swim team. That's a lot of action for a boy whose life was threatened four years ago by juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia — a rare blood cancer.
The 7-year-old with blonde hair, hazel eyes and an engaging grin also likes to play soccer. And he's kicked his cancer to the curb. Thanks to Be The Match, his family's search for a donor ended successfully in December.
No one in Owen's family was a match.
“In 70 percent of the cases, there is no family member who matches,” said his mother, Heather Jensen.
Owen is now cancer-free. In gratitude, he and his family have joined forces with Gintant to encourage bone marrow donors to sign on with Be The Match.
Owen's transplant took place at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital, which is not far from his donor's home in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Gintant organized Team Owen so that his family could participate in the Be The Match Walk+Run that drew 1,976 people to Minneapolis this year. The event has been held since 2011 to enlist more donors, help patients with uninsured treatment costs and support continued marrow transplant research.
Helping the organization that helped save his life took Owen and his parents to Washington, D.C., for four days in July to urge members of the Nebraska Congressional delegation not to cut federal funding for the Be The Match Registry.
Funding is critical, according to LaGail Chism, an account executive for the registry.
“Every year, more than 12,000 patients in the U.S. are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma, and their best or only hope of a cure is a transplant from an unrelated adult donor or umbilical cord blood unit,” Chism said.
On Sept. 11, Owen and his mother attended a donor drive at Union Pacific headquarters. They were able to encourage 42 people to join the Be The Match Registry that day. Owen's father, Mark Jensen, who works at Union Pacific, helped tell Owen's story.
Also in September, a weeklong drive held at Creighton University ended with 115 people signed up.
“We share our story so people can say, 'Oh, wow. It's important to find a match,'” Heather Jensen said.
Registration involves providing a health history, giving a swab of cheek cells, then being available to donate when needed.
“Every registry member, every financial contributor and every volunteer increase the odds that a critically ill person will have a second chance at life,” Chism said.
Life hasn't changed much for Owen, beyond his six-month checkups (once a year back to the hospital in Minneapolis). However, he has become a huge University of Minnesota football fan.
Both he and his brother, 9-year-old Drew, also are Minnesota Vikings fans. Their sister Kate, 12, is not much of a football fan.
Owen wants to be a doctor when he grows up. Or maybe a basketball player or a football player.
His mother says he jumps out of bed in the morning, filled with energy and optimism.
“It's so much fun to watch him. We appreciate every day that he's healthy and are so thankful that he's doing so well.”
Learn more at BeTheMatch.org or call 800-MARROW-2 (800-627-7692).