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Miracle Match

Published Sep. 29, 2005

Alton Rowe Jr. was just trying to show his buddies he wasn't afraid of needles.

But when he gave a small sample of blood for a bone marrow drive, it turned out to be a lifesaving gesture for a little Detroit girl who received his marrow last year.

Today Rowe, 35, of St. Petersburg will meet 10-year-old Monica Rozier and her mother, who flew to Florida on Thursday.

Monica will give Rowe a drawing and a poem. Her mother hasn't decided how to respond to the man who has given her daughter a chance to survive her battle against acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

"I keep thinking of it, and I can't come up with anything. I want to hug him and thank him," Barbara Rozier said. "I can't find the words to express my feelings."

Rozier, an automobile designer in Dearborn, Mich., said her daughter became ill early in 1994 when she developed what was thought to be a sinus infection. She did not respond to antibiotics.

"One day she just fainted," Rozier said.

That was when the divorced mother of two learned that her daughter has leukemia.

"They put her on chemotherapy right away. She responded very well in the beginning and was in remission after 28 days," Rozier said.

But Monica, who will enter sixth grade this fall, had a relapse. Doctors discovered in October 1996 that the cancer had spread from her bone marrow to her central nervous system.

Another relapse occurred in 1998. Monica lost all her hair. Skin from her scalp covered her pillow. She lost weight.

"After the second relapse, they really didn't have much hope for her," Rozier said. "Then we got a call from the National Marrow Donor Program that they had found a match. That's where Alton comes in."

A security guard and part-time fast food restaurant employee, Rowe said he had been volunteering at Wildwood Recreation Center in 1997 during a bone marrow drive for Tara McElroy, a little girl who needed a transplant to fight leukemia. Tara got her transplant but died later that year.

As Rowe recalled, he had no intention of becoming a bone marrow donor that day. His buddies practically dared him to do it.

"It was done as a joke to show that needles weren't going to hurt," Rowe said.

A few months later he got a call saying he was a perfect match for a patient. For Monica, who is African-American, the odds of such a match were not in her favor.

The most suitable match usually is a member of a patient's family or an unrelated person within a similar ethnic background. Of the 3,682,193 donors listed on the National Marrow Donor Program registry as of June, only 290,027 were African-American.

Dr. Robert A. Good, who performed the world's first successful bone marrow transplant in 1968, confirmed Monica's good fortune.

"That is very uncommon to have a satisfactory bone marrow transplant in a black donor, because they just don't have enough black people that are signed up as volunteers in the national bone marrow program," said Good, physician-in-chief at All Children's Hospital.

Katrina Holley, marrow donor recruiter for Florida Blood Services, said she is saddened by the lukewarm minority response.

"What is it going to take?" she asked. "Are we going to have to lose more children?"

Rozier said her daughter has to be checked every three months for five years to be sure the cancer has not returned.

"So far, so good," she said. "'It's going to be great. She's not going to relapse. God won't have brought us this far."

Rowe said he feels blessed that his bone marrow has helped Monica. "I just felt that of everybody, God had chosen me," he said.

"I want to thank him for letting God work through him," Rozier said.

Court records show that Rowe has not always let that happen. In 1996, he was arrested for possession and sale of rock cocaine. He spent 48 days on a work release program.

"I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.

There was a spousal battery arrest in 1989. He was sentenced to six months of probation.

But becoming a bone marrow donor for Monica, Rowe said, "is the most important thing I've done."

Rozier refuses to judge him.

"Everybody has their own journey. All that matters to me is that something led him to that drive. I want to think, "No, I know, it was God.' "

How to become

a bone marrow donor

Several bone marrow drives will be held this weekend for a 14-year-old Tampa boy, Lawrence E. Brown: Today, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., Florida Blood Services, 445 31st St. N, St. Petersburg; Saturday, Back to School Gospel Concert and marrow drive, 3 to 6 p.m., Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N; Sunday, 10 a.m., church service and marrow drive, Living Word Community Baptist Church, Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S. Call Florida Blood Services at (800) 682-5663.