A Winnipeg nurse who has saved lives for the last 25 years now needs the public's help saving her own.
Sheila Wolfe has worked as a nurse in the emergency room of the Victoria General Hospital for most of her career. Last fall, her jaw started to feel sore. After doing a blood test, doctors diagnosed the 59-year-old with acute myeloid leukemia in October.
"I've been so healthy, never a problem at all. I ran every day, ate right, don't smoke, don't drink — I did everything right," Wolfe said in an interview Wednesday, discussing what it's like being on the other side of the health-care system.
"It's very hard to be a patient, because you know a little bit, but not enough. I didn't really know anything about leukemia until this affected me."
Wolfe needs a stem cell transplant in an effort to survive her rare form of blood cancer. So far doctors have been hard-pressed to find a match for Wolfe, partly because she is biracial and her match needs to be of similar ethnicity.
Stem cells are immature blood cells that can turn into any of the three main components of healthy blood (red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets) needed to help fight off disease.
Only about 400,000 Canadians are registered in the OneMatch system as possible stem cell donors and about 75 per cent of them are Caucasian, said Darrin Desmedt, Canadian Blood Services territory manager for stem cells in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
"We're not fully representative of Canada as a whole. So that's why when we look to what we would call an 'optimal donor,' it's definitely someone that's culturally diverse, but also males," Desmedt said.
"Males would be included in our optimal donors just because we have better patient outcomes with male donors in general," he said, adding men's blood-donation volumes are higher and they are typically more physiologically stable.
Wolfe's family is helping organize a stem cell donor drive at the Victoria hospital Thursday, from noon to 9 p.m., hoping to encourage more people to sign up.
The process is quick and simple: those interested need a few minutes to fill out paperwork and take a cheek swab.
Donors must be between the ages of 17 and 35 to ensure "best possible outcomes," said Desmedt, who noted those registered stay in the system until they're 60.
"We want people to understand that when they're signing up tomorrow there's always that potential they could be a match with Sheila, but they may not," he said. "So they have to understand that it could be someone else that they're willing to donate to as well across Canada."
If you can't make it to the Victoria (2340 Pembina Hwy.), at-home swab kits are also available through blood.ca.
Wolfe, who is on medical leave, won't be at the drive Thursday, but said she misses going to work and her co-workers at the hospital. She's trying to stay strong for her two daughters, Sarah, 23, and Andrea, 21.
"They're optimistic. They keep me going. That's why I'm fighting so hard for them, because I want to see them finish school, get married, have kids," she said.
"But it's been hard, because I'm their mom and we're very close," she added, with a sigh. "It's been a journey."
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.