Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry Dedicates Walk of Life on Sept. 27 to Young Hero

By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — Superheroes come in all sizes. Just ask Fr. Arakel and Yn. Natasha Aljalian of St. James Armenian Church of Watertown. Their son, Gabriel, 5, whose leukemia is now in remission, is one such pint-sized superhero.

“When he was diagnosed, he was very young,” Natasha Aljalian said. “At first we didn’t tell him that he is sick.” Though he has had to miss a lot of school and to tolerate much discomfort due to the treatments, his mother said that Gabriel’s attitude has been stellar. “I can’t say enough about this child,” she said with pride.

This year, the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry (ABMDR), which has hosted an annual Walk of Life in the town for the past three years, has dedicated the walk to Gabriel. The walk will take place in Watertown, starting at 10 a.m., on Saturday, September 27.

So far the family, including Rev. Aljalian, Natasha Aljalian and Gabriel, as well as little sister Mary, is planning to walk together. In case Gabriel is not feeling well, they will go and cheer all the walkers.

Gabriel was diagnosed in November 2012 and has been in treatment since then for B-cell ALL, one of the most common and most treatable forms of leukemia. “Gabriel was diagnosed as having standard risk and luckily, we never needed radiation,” Natasha Aljalian said.

As she explained, “they achieve remission within the first 30 days. Achieving remission is not the problem but training the body for it not to return” is why the treatment protocol continues over the course of two years of chemotherapy and steroids.

His treatment causes much discomfort and pain, but he bears it gracefully. “He has chemo put into his spine and has a port under his skin,” she said, in addition to getting oral chemotherapy. Even more debilitating than the chemotherapy is the high dose of steroids that he has to take in order to retrain his body.

Still, all the difficulties have been worth it, she explained, as “he has responded beautifully.” With the treatments almost at an end, she said her son “looks great and is running around like a 5-year-old boy should be.” He is also driven by the joy that he is seeing the end of the exhaustive treatments. “He is in countdown mode,” she said.

Gabriel, a kindergartener at St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School (SSAES), was in the second year of nursery school when he was diagnosed. “He goes to school as much as he can,” his mother said. “He is loving it.”

Aljalian praised the students and staff at SSAES as well as the parishioners of St. James Armenian Church for their support. “When the kids saw him with no hair or extremely puffy, both the St. James Sunday School students and the St. Stephen’s students were remarkable. They just rolled with it. The kids have been so amazing for him,” she said.

She added that the “St. James family already treated Gabriel like one of their own. Everyone at St. Stephen’s Elementary and nursery—I can’t say enough about them, how they have treated him so that he has been able to have a normal childhood. Both the teachers and the staff have been remarkable.”

Aljalian said that though she has always known about the importance of the bone marrow registry, her son’s illness has made her that much more aware of its importance. “It could literally save our son if he relapsed,” she said.

She encouraged everyone, including families, organizations or individuals to join the walk. “They can donate to any of the teams,” she added. She also encouraged people to have a swab taken of their mouth in order to register.

Dr. Frieda Jordan, the president of the ABMDR, said that over the course of the organization’s operation within the past 15 years, there have been more than 26,000 active donors registered, and more than 2,000 potential matches made. “Not every potential match goes into a patient,” she explained, as sometimes the patient either recovers before the bone marrow transplant or conversely, the illness ravages the patient’s body to the point that it cannot endure a transplant. “The final transplant decision is not up to the registry,” she said. “We provide a match and it is up to the physicians to use it.”

There have been 20 successful transplants, she explained, all over the world. “Our size is small but we provide potential matches all over the world,” Jordan said.

The goal of the walkathon, she said, is two-fold: to raise awareness so people know about the ABMDR and also to provide much-needed funds to test and sort swab samples. “They go hand in hand,” she said. “We want this walk to be a grassroots event, with young families and all the schools, especially as leukemia hits young people more.”

The idea to dedicate the walk to Gabriel Aljalian, Jordan said, came from the Walk Committee, headed by Alvart Badalian. “It is a beautiful idea,” she said. “Our motivation is a patient in need. I am so happy that he is in remission. Gabriel being at our walk will help people to realize it could happen to them. It is good to be more proactive in helping each other, by participating.”

The Watertown walk follows a 2.2-mile route starting at the Armenian Cultural and Educational Center (ACEC), 47 Nichols Ave., and ending at the “Faire on the Square” on Main Street in Watertown Square, where participants can enjoy music, dancing, food, and company.

Several organizations have already formed walking teams, and new organizations are joining every day.  The participating organizations include Armenian General Benevolent Union Young Professionals of Boston, Amaras Art Alliance, Armenian American Pharmacists’ Association, Armenian Assembly of America, Armenian Business Network, Armenian Youth Federation, Belmont High School Armenian Club, Boston College Armenian Club, Cambridge Yerevan Sister City Association, Erebuni Armenian School, Erebouni Dance School and Ensemble, Friends of Armenian Cultural Society, Hamazkayin-Boston, Lexington High School Armenian Club, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Armenian Society, St. James Armenian Church, St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School, Sayat Nova Dance Company of Boston, and YerazArt Foundation. Prospective participants are encouraged to join an existing team, start their own team, or walk individually.

To register for the walkathon, sponsor a walker, or for more information, interested individuals are encouraged to visit, contact Tatoul Badalian at (617) 331-0426, or write to [email protected].