Pat Pedraja and Driving for Donors

Pat Pedrja and a comforting buddy
Pat Pedrja and a comforting buddy

Pat Pedraja got sick just after his 10th birthday, when his first symptoms came as swollen knees than eventually rendered him unable to walk. He was treated for a year for what doctors thought was rheumatoid arthritis when an even more shocking diagnosis was made in its place - Pat had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

ALL is a cancer of the white blood cells, those which normally fight infections in the body. It is also the most common type of cancer in children, and as a whole, affects 1 in every 29,000 children in the United States.

At the time, Pat was an active 4th grader, considered the fastest runner in his class, and an avid hockey player.

Soon after his diagnosis, Pat began his chemotherapy course at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa, Florida, staying at the hospital every other week to endure treatments.

It was during one of his stays there that he felt called to an even greater purpose.

An ambitious, business-minded young man, Pat had long admired Farrah Gray, an African American entrepreneur who became a millionaire by age 14.

While at the hospital, he watched a special on the television show 20/20 about Farrah's sister, who needed a bone marrow transplant to survive. The program encouraged minorities to register as donors, as matches are likelier to be found amongst the same ethnicities. (Sadly, Farrah's sister never found a donor match and died).

Pat in front of his Donormobile
Pat in front of his Donormobile

What is a Bone Marrow Transplant?

Bone Marrow is a tissue found inside bones, which in certain areas of the body contain stem cells that produce blood cells.

Certain illnesses create defective and abnormal blood cells that interfere with the production of normal red and white blood cells, and then attack other tissues as well. While chemotherapy and radiation help destroy the bad cells, they also destroy normal cells and even healthy bone marrow.

Bone marrow transplants help replace the damaged bone marrow so that it can begin normal function again, increasing chances of survival for patients.

Bone Marrow transplantation has only been around for 40 years, but is growing in its use to fight diseases previously thought entirely incurable. Thousands of people with leukemia, lymphomas, immune deficiency disorders, aplastic anemia, and some tumors have had their lives saved each year from bone marrow transplants. Sadly, though, 70% of those awaiting a transplant never receive one since a matching donor isn't found.

What most people don't realize is that the process is much simpler and less invasive than what the word "transplant" conveys. While one technique is an outpatient surgical procedure, for most, stem cells are collected through a blood transfusion similar to giving blood.

Pat, with an advertising sticker on his head, and his mom
Pat, with an advertising sticker on his head, and his mom

A Journey Begins

Although his cancer treatment did not require a bone marrow transplant, he was struck by the fact that minorities like himself (Pat"s dad is Cuban) have a much more difficult time finding a matching donor, as minorities make up less than a third of the national donor registry.

He decided right then and there that he wanted to help expand the base of potential donors from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and he and his parents set forth a plan for a nationwide drive.

They would cover 35 cities in 2007 with the goal of adding 2007 new registrants to the National Marrow Donor Program.

At $52 for each DNA test, they knew it would take over 100,000 US dollars to move forward with their goal. It would also require an RV to travel across the country in.

Determined that nothing would stop him in his goal to help others survive, Pat, all the while enduring chemotherapy treatments, set out on a mission to raise the funds.

He started on eBay, the popular online auction site. There he created an auction offering two months of advertising space on his newly bald head, and received a winning bid from a company in San Diego, California for over 5,000 dollars. He followed with others.

True to his word, each day he would boldly wear the stickers/temporary tattoos on his forehead everywhere he went, selflessly raising funds to help others.

The Donormobile
The Donormobile

One Child's Dream

The trek, called "Driving for Donors," took place during 12 weeks from May to August of 2007.

In a donated RV dubbed the "Donormobile," Pat and his family drove throughout the US, starting in Miami, and visiting cities as far as Los Angeles and New York.

They received far more attention than they ever could have dreamt of, and soon Pat was appearing in newspapers and television shows, and even meeting celebrities at movie premiers and receiving tickets to NBA finals.

The media attention paid off - the trip garnered 5,000 new additions to the donor registry, and the number has now grown to 7,000.

Of these, 3 have already become life-saving matches, ironically, one for a man living not far from the hospital where Pat received his own life-saving treatment.

CNN recently selected Pat from 7,000 entries as one of its "Young Wonders" in its "CNN Heroes" initiative, and he was ultimately selected as the Viewer's Choice Winner and honored at a star-studded gala.

Pat is also currently a finalist for the prestigious Br!ck Awards, which honor young people making a difference in the world.

Now with his cancer in remission, Pat is more determined and energetic than ever to continue on his mission. He and his family are currently busy planning a 2008 international tour.

He may be too young to drive, but he is not too young to dream. In fact, Pat Pedraja's dream of a Donor Drive is helping young and old receive the life saving treatment they had been desperately waiting for, never imagining the hero that would facilitate it would be a small child with a big dream.

Page created on 4/5/2013 11:25:40 PM

Last edited 1/6/2017 4:56:59 PM

Related Links

National Marrow Donor Program - helps patients afford transplant, find a matching donor and build a future as they advance medical research.
DKMS - The DKMS mission is to save lives by recruiting bone marrow donors for leukemia patients.
Driving For Donors: - Pat's national marrow donor drive's official website.

Author Info

Pat Pedraja is currently a 2008 BR!CK Award Finalist.

The BR!CK Awards is the first televised award show about changing the world. It celebrates young people making our world better.
BR!CK Award winners aren't just the leaders of tomorrow. They are the leaders of today.