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Irene Katrandjian, a 52-year-old mother of three, never thought she might need a stem cell transplant herself someday when she joined a donor registry several years back. "I heard that a little boy needed stem cells. I thought, 'Why wouldn't you help?' To me, it was a no-brainer."

Now, her children and others are conducting a stem cell blood drive to save Katrandjian's life.
The New Jersey SAT tutor, suffers from a rare form of blood cancer called "peripheral T cell lymphoma."

Here, I'll provide more info about her particular case and how you can help save a life right now -- but I also want to explore some of the factors most likely to produce empathy and altruistic behavior and how you can use them to motivate people (including yourself and your kids) to be kinder and consequently, healthier, too.

Although she spent two hours a day at the gym six days a week and felt like she was in great shape, Katrandjian had become concerned about a "pea sized" lump in her right leg. A doctor told her not to worry -- but she sought a second opinion and was diagnosed in 2008.

Unfortunately, while they worked at first, chemotherapy and a transplant of her own stem cells did not keep the rampaging disease at bay for long. A recently approved drug developed by her doctor, Owen O'Connor, chief of medical oncology at NYU, called pralatrexate has put Katrandjian into the state of remission required for her to be able to benefit from a transplant. "She's on that now and is responding very nicely," says O'Connor.

But without finding a matching donor, the drug alone won't help in the long run. "If she doesn't get a transplant, she will die," her doctor says.

Until recently, many people were reluctant to donate stem cells because they had to be taken from bone marrow, a process that requires extracting the marrow from a donor's hip bone.

"It's much easier now," says O'Connor, explaining that this changed over the last five to ten years. Today, a donor who matches usually only has to give blood. And to find out if you're a match, all you have to do is fill out this form on this website and a kit to take a painless DNA sample from your saliva will be mailed. (I've just done it myself).

For a matching donor, blood is retrieved just like in a normal blood donation through an IV -- though the process here takes a bit longer. From the IV, the stem cells are removed by a machine and the same blood -- now minus the stem cells -- is returned through an IV in the opposite arm.

O'Connor says, "Everyone should donate with eye to helping. Your modest discomfort compared to that of a patient who will die if they don't get a transplant, should be put in context. Making it easy is important if it helps--but you have to think that you're investing your time and cells to help someone who's having anything but an easy time. The bottom line still has to be a plea to help someone in a situation you pray to God you're never in."

Katrandjian is Armenian -- so people of that descent are especially encouraged to give, as genetically, they would be more likely to be a match. A stem cell drive will be held at St. Vartan's church in New York City on April 25, in conjunction with events that weekend to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Only people who are matched will be contacted -- and if you change your mind about giving, you can always decline then.

So, what's the best way to get people to give and help others? Katrandjian's story actually contains many of the key elements. For one, studies find that the easier and less painful it is to give (blood v. bone marrow, free mail-back kits v. having to go somewhere), the more likely it is that people will do so.

Second, people almost never give "generically" -- if I tell you that thousands of people are dying every year from a rare disease and you can help by giving blood, you're quite unlikely to be moved unless you are an extraordinarily compassionate person. As Stalin coldly quipped, "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic."

But when people hear about a specific case -- like that of a New Jersey mom with three kids -- they are much more likely to give. Indeed, research by psychologist Paul Slovic finds that people given a photo of a person in need give twice as much money as those shown statistics. Even including statistics can reduce giving--so if you want to find out more about how many people have the condition that Katrandjian does, I'm not including it here!

Another factor that matters, sometimes unfortunately, is how we see the victim. People are much more likely to help those who they see as "deserving" -- mothers, for example, like Katrandjian who have given to others are far more likely to receive, too. Children -- like four-year-old Charlotte Conybear of Philadelphia, who also needs a transplant -- are especially likely to benefit.

While that's fair in some cases, it can also be problematic if we aren't careful. Determining who is "deserving" can be a moral minefield -- but it's something that has to be considered when we are trying to encourage compassionate behavior.

Guilt, however, can also prod giving according to some research.

Further, a connection to a specific group of people can encourage donations -- people are much more likely to give to someone who seems "like us" than they are to give to someone who appears to be very different. Like "deservingness," group membership is a double-edged sword because too much focus on it can discourage giving by those not in that group. However, it can be useful, particularly in cases like this where the characteristic is actually relevant to the probability of the donation being useful.

In this instance, people in other minority groups are particularly urged to give because all minorities are under-represented in stem cell banks and changing this will benefit everyone.

Recognizing that giving is healthy -- even if you have to lose a bit of blood -- also encourages altruism.

Research shows that people who volunteer to help others, who have stronger relationships and feel the sense of purpose that giving brings actually live longer than those who do not.

Finally, there's symmetry: most people have a deep sense of justice and we like to help when it feels like we can right a wrong. Considering the genocidal terror Katrandjian's people have faced, it feels life-affirming to give blood to save life in this context.

I just signed up to donate -- and I hope you will, too! (Oh yeah, and personal appeals from someone we feel some sort of connection to can help, in addition so if this makes it more likely for you to give, I certainly encourage it!).

 
 
 

Follow Maia Szalavitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/maiasz