Bone marrow donor drive honors Iowa City boy battling lymphoma

Event is Tuesday at Hoover Elementary School

Brianna Wills with her son Calder at their home in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, March 10, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Brianna Wills with her son Calder at their home in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, March 10, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — More than 20 million people are registered as bone marrow donors in the Be the Match registry, the largest and most diverse donor registry in the world.

But none can help Calder Wills, a 12-year-old Iowa City boy battling stage 4 T-cell lymphoma, or cancer of the blood.

Only one person has been identified as a 100-percent match for Calder, but that person was deemed medically unable to donate bone marrow.

This has left the Wills family with few options.

And so, friends of the family are hosting a donor registry drive on Tuesday to raise awareness about the need for more marrow donors and to perhaps find a match for Calder and others like him.

The event takes place from 3 to 8 p.m. inside the gym at Hoover Elementary School, 2200 E. Court St., Iowa City. Those who attend can join the Be The Match registry. Those who are unable to attend can register online at

Calder was diagnosed with lymphoma in February 2016. He went into remission within the first 30 days but found out on April 11 — the day after his 12th birthday — that he had relapsed and would need a bone-marrow transplant. He is one of thousands searching for a match.

“He is among the 70 percent of patients who surprisingly don’t have a match in their own family,” explained Colleen Reardon, manager of the Iowa Marrow Donor Program at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics. “We are looking for a tissue type match and each sibling has about a 25 percent chance of being a match.”


Calder has three siblings, a twin brother Grayson and sisters Charlotte, 7, and Arden, 5, all of whom were not matches. The next best chance a patient has, statistically, is to find an unrelated donor that is a 100-percent match.

Calder’s mother Brianna Wills described it as devastating when the family found out that the 58-year-old woman who matched with Calder was deemed medically unable to donate.

“That left us with no match, no options,” she said. “We’ve decided to pursue cord blood for his transplant,” Wills said. “He is going to have a cord blood transplant at the University of Minnesota because a bone marrow match wasn’t available and he couldn’t wait until one became available.”

According to the Be The Match website, cord blood is one of three sources of blood-forming cells used in transplant. The others are bone marrow and peripheral blood stem cells. Cord blood can be used to treat more than 80 diseases, including blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. Cord blood comes from a baby’s umbilical cord.

Wills said that even though Calder is receiving a different type of transplant, she does not want people to not register as a marrow donor.

“I don’t want that to dissuade people from continuing to do it because he has about a two out of three chance that this transplant will fail because he has T-cell lymphoma that is very aggressive and very hard to treat,” Wills said. “Realistically, statistically, we are looking at him needing a second transplant down the road and that’s when we hope that we’ll find a donor and we can use a bone marrow match then.

“Please still do it and not just for Calder, do it for the thousands of people who also don’t have a match.”

According to Reardon, of every 540 people who register as a donor, only one will be identified as that perfect match for someone and be asked to donate.


Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

“We’re not realistically hoping to find Calder’s donor, I mean that would be amazing, but really we’re hoping to expand the database. We’re just hoping that some family in Texas or somewhere else in the world is also doing this and maybe they’ll find Calder’s donor,” Wills said. “If we’re all doing it, we’re going to expand the database for everyone’s benefit.”

Wills recognizes that even though the drive is in Calder’s honor, it is truly to the benefit of thousands of other people who don’t have donors.

“There are other ethnic groups that have very little participation and to be a match you need to be matched with donors that have similar ethnic background as you do,” Wills said. “So African Americans, Hispanics, people that have mixed races, or Asian background we’d love to have them come because there are people waiting for donors of all kinds of backgrounds.”


What: Bone Marrow Donor Drive

When: 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Hoover Elementary School, 2200 E. Court St., Iowa City

Details: Join the Iowa Marrow Donor Program and Be The Match Registry using a simple cheek swab.

Info: or call the Iowa Marrow Donor Program at (319) 356-3337.

l Comments: (319) 368-8538;



CEDAR RAPIDS - Cedar Rapids residents used Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an opportunity to discuss what systemic racism looks like and how it can be addressed.About 50 people attended a panel discussion Monday at St. Paul's United ...

DES MOINES - Iowans used Monday's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Des Moines to press for racial unity in the face of events, actions and words nationally that drive division.Dozens of Iowans who braved cold temperatures ...

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.

Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.