Duo takes a hike and gets high to help those with blood disorders
Hikers set their sights on Drakensberg peak to highlight the difficulties of finding blood stem cell donors
In a bid to highlight the uphill battle faced by people living with life-threatening blood disorders, two hikers intend trekking up SA’s highest peak on the Drakensberg.
The pair say they hope their steps will flag the difficulties of finding blood stem cell donors.
Alicia Venter, search coordinator for the SA Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR), said blood cancer cases have been increasing at a much faster pace that many other types of cancer.
“In the past decade the global incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and leukaemia has increased by 45% and 26% respectively. Recommended prevention efforts, such as lifestyle changes, tend to be less effective for haematologic malignancies than for other cancers, which makes a blood stem cell transplant a patient’s only hope for survival.
“The hike is symbolic of the uphill battle that patients face. Finding a donor is much more complicated than finding a blood match,” she said.
The important factor in finding a suitable match is the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) – a complex set of genes in a person’s DNA that regulates immunity. These genes are set to play a crucial role in whether the body accepts or rejects a transplant, according to Venter.
“Once a patient’s HLA markers are identified, the search for a matching donor begins. Sadly, in many cases, matches aren’t found, which is partly due to a lack of donor diversity.
In SA, there is a dire need for donors of colour.Alicia Venter
“In SA, there is a dire need for donors of colour. When it comes to matching HLA types, a patient’s ethnicity plays an important role as HLA markers are inherited. Some ethnic groups have more complex tissue types than others. Therefore finding a match is most likely to come from someone of the same ethnic group,” she said.
The hikers are Clayton Coetzee, a 30-year-old adventurer and bone marrow donor from Cape Town, and Gavin Raubenheimer, an expert mountaineer from KwaZulu-Natal. They will attempt to ascend the majestic Mafadi peak, via a route up Judge Pass.
The duo say they hope that the three-day summit to the country’s highest mountain top will focus the nation’s attention on the struggles that patients and their families face, and how the simple act of becoming a donor can improve patients’ chances of survival.
“As a modern-day generation, caught up in fast-pace living, it’s easy to forget about those who are sick and vulnerable and need our help the most. When attempting a gruelling challenge, such as summiting a peak, we become acutely aware of how reliant we are on each other and how each life matters.
“Ultimately, we want to move beyond blood stem cell donation being a mere act of kindness to something which society views as a moral responsibility and duty, because every transplant has the potential to save a life and we each have a role to play,” Venter said.
Coetzee said the initiative was close to his heart and he hoped more people would become donors.
“Bone marrow donation is close to my heart as one of my dearest friends got sick with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia several years ago. It’s then when I heard about the SA Bone Marrow Registry and the lifesaving work that they do, and I decided to sign up as a donor.
Once people realise how easy it is to become a donor and that no needles are involved, more are likely to take up the challenge.Clayton Coetzee
“It’s a no-brainer to me. Once people realise how easy it is to become a donor and that no needles are involved, more are likely to take up the challenge. I want people to know that blood diseases can affect anyone, regardless of ethnicity or gender.
“Extending beyond our boundaries or comfort zones – like climbing Mafadi – can be hard but imagine the indelible difference the act of becoming a donor can have on someone else’s life and their loved ones,” he said.
Meanwhile, Raubenheimer, who has climbed several mountains in southern Africa and abroad, said this climb was special.
“I’ve done more than 100 first ascents of rock and ice climbs in SA, but being able to actively advocate for bone marrow donation during this climb is a true privilege. I hope the hike encourages and inspires the public and all those touched by blood disorders to become donors, and to also donate much-needed funds towards the SABMR’s patient assistance programme,” he said.
Raubenheimer said the hike involved a circular route that went through large mountains and was usually covered in five days of hard walking. But they would be attempting it in three days.
“We’ll cover an average distance of about 25km on the first two days and gain an altitude of 1,600m per day; therefore the gradient is pretty intense. On the last day there is an altitude drop of 1,650m as we make the descent from the escarpment back to Injisuthi,” he said.
Venter has called on South Africans to unite behind the campaign by hiking in solidarity with Coetzee and Raubenheimer between September 7 and 9, or by swabbing their cheeks to get registered on the bone marrow registry.
“Let’s all rally together behind the cause and by doing so, change the landscape of blood disorders for the better,” she said.