‘Adversity’: How de Blasio’s transition co-chair managed leukemia

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Dan Goldberg

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Jennifer Jones Austin, named co-chair of Bill de Blasio's transition team, has an impressive resume of public service, but that wasn't the only part of her past highlighted by the newly elected mayor.

De Blasio made a point of citing Jones Austin as "an extraordinary person, with an extraordinary personal story as well of overcoming adversity," a reference to her very public battle with leukemia.

In 2009, Jones Austin, a 41-year-old active, fit, mother of two, was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Luekemia, one of the most common types of leukemia, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Leukemia is distinguished by how rapidly it spreads. In acute leukemia, bone marrow cells are immature and are unable to function normally. The number of abnormal cells increases rapidly. Myeloid refers to the type of blood cell affected.

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Jones Austin was told she needed a bone marrow transplant. There was no donor match in the registry and finding one would not be easy, she learned, in part because Jones Austin is African-American.

Because tissue types are inherited patients have a much better chance of finding a match within their own race.

Blacks have an estimated 66-percent likelihood of having a compatible donor on the Be The Match Registry. For whites, the number is closer to 93 percent, according to Be The Match, which manages the world's largest marrow registry. There are nine million people on the Be The Match Registry, but only seven percent are black.

Some of that is because of a lack of awareness, said Akiim DeShay, whose website blackbonemarrow.com encourages African Americans to get tested and register.

But it is also because of a historical mistrust of medical institutions, he said, and cultural differences among black Americans.

“We don't deal with health the same as way as white Americans do,” he said. “We keep health issues within our family. This doesn't include all of us, but a large part of us don't discuss health. We don't interact with doctors as much. We're just not part of the health system as much.”

Jones Austin, whose story is still used to recruit donors, received a transplant from an umbilical cord blood transplant in 2010, and now leads the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, a social services network.

Her campaign had a tremendous impact, said Airam Da Silva, president of the Icla Da Silva Foundation, largest recruitment center for the Be The Match Registry.

Jones Austin leveraged her expansive network, as well as that of her late father, Reverend William Augustus Jones II, who served as pastor for Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn for 43 years, and she was able to spur the largest recruitment campaign in the foundation's history. Da Silva said they usually register 39,000 people each year. In 10 weeks, Jones Austin helped register 13,000 – most of whom were African Americans.

“Myself and my staff have never been so busy,” Da Silva said. Here's the video appeal Jones Austin made for Be The Match: