In Riverhead, swabbing a cheek to save a life

Bill Faulk of Manorville puts himself on the national list of potential bone marrow donors by swabbing his cheeks at Saturday's event with Joseph Latini (background, left) and organizer Patrick Gaeta. (Credit: Michael White)
Bill Faulk of Manorville puts himself on the national list of potential bone marrow donors by swabbing his cheeks at Saturday’s event with Joseph Latini (background, left) and organizer Patrick Gaeta. (Credit: Michael White)

Joseph Latini knows the odds aren’t in his dad’s favor.

Diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer called multiple myeloma late last summer, his 63-year-old father, also Joseph Latini, underwent two rounds of chemotherapy — only to then find out there were no matches for him among the 18 million potential bone marrow donors on the national registry.

Without a donor, the elder Mr. Latini’s chances of survival are low.

The Latini family set out to better the odds, however narrowly, with a series of donor drives throughout Long Island.

“My father and I are both in the same business; we’re in the banking industry,” the younger Mr. Latini said. “We understand the math. If he didn’t match 18 million, what am I going to swab a few thousand?

“But I have to try. So here we are.”

Mr. Latini was at the Moustache Brewing Company tasting room Saturday afternoon in Riverhead, where would-be donors got their cheeks swabbed in order to get placed on the national list. The drive was not organized by the Latini family, but Lauri Spitz, a co-owner of Moustache Brewing Company, and Patrick Gaeta, a friend of the Latinis and a co-owner of the North Fork Bacon & Smokehouse restaurant in Wading River, which also provided free BBQ for the participants.

Joseph and Jeannette Latini (Credit: Courtesy)
Joseph and Jeannette Latini (courtesy)

Ms. Spitz said she had learned of Mr. Latini’s struggle with blood cancer after a friend, Bill Faulk of Manorville, had shared a link on Facebook about an upcoming donor drive in Brookaven Town for Mr. Latini.

She then reached out to Mark Segreto of the Delete Blood Cancer, a nonprofit group, and scheduled a date for the Riverhead drive.

“I have a couple of friends who are alive today because of bone marrow donors,” Ms. Spitz mentioned among other reasons for offering up the tasting room for the event. “It’s something that we figured would be easy for us to help with.”

Mr. Gaeta, who had lost a grandfather to lymphoma, said he wanted to help an old friend.

“If I need it one day, maybe somebody will be there for me,” he said.

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For those looking to get on the donor list, there was a short form to fill out, then the person had to rub two cotton swabs along the inside of his or her cheeks at the same time for 20 seconds. Only 1 percent of those on the list actually end up donating.

Mr. Segreto said being a blood marrow donor is much easier than it was years back.

“It’s just a lot less invasive than it used to be,” he said, explaining that 80 percent of donors only undergo a blood draw. “It’s a very common procedure similar to donating platelets or plasma.”

Those in the 20 percent who donate actual bone marrow are put under general anesthesia during an hour-long-procedure and typically experience some soreness for about two weeks afterward.

“The methods of collection have really improved over the last few years,” he said. “I donated last year to my younger brother at Sloan Kettering in New York City and I was at work the same day. It was painless; I was at my computer the whole time, watching the Yankee game.”

“I’m not asking anyone for money,” said Mr. Luniri. “What I want is your DNA. I want people to swab so there’s a chance to save a life.”

“One of the great things about my dad,” he continued, “who always has a positive outlook on everything — is, well, hopefully we’ll save his life, but maybe we register someone who saves somebody else’s life.

“He looks at it that way.”

According to Delete Blood Cancer:

• Blood cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths and kills more children than any other disease in the U.S.

• While 30 percent of patients can find a donor from within their family, 70 percent must rely on people they do not know to donate.

• Each year, more than 14,000 Americans need transplants. Less than half will get them.

Would-be donors can also register online at

Click here for more about Joseph Latini.

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