A Patient's Mission: Recruit Marrow Donors

updated 08/23/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/23/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ANH REISS, 42

Houston

Anh Reiss was headed to the gym in February 2009 when she got the call that changed her life. Test results held unimaginable news: She had a rare blood disorder and perhaps only six months to live. Her only hope, her doctor told her, was a bone-marrow transplant that could restore her ravaged immune system. But Reiss learned to her dismay that she had a far slimmer chance than many Americans of finding a suitable donor. Although there are more than 8 million potential donors on the national Be the Match Registry, Reiss' search yielded only 15,000 of Vietnamese descent-whose genetic makeup was most similar to her own-and none was a match. The mother of two despaired. "The thought of leaving my family was overwhelming," says Reiss, who is herself an ob-gyn. "I cried a lot."

But rather than give up, Reiss took action. She and husband Josh, 42, a lawyer, began crisscrossing the Midwest and showing up at Vietnamese festivals to break down cultural barriers against becoming a donor. Allaying fears, sharing her story and swabbing cheeks herself, she has helped add as many as 10,000 Vietnamese donors to the registry. "There's no telling how many lives she's saved," says Mary Halet, director of recruitment for Be the Match (bethematch.org).

Reiss-who came to this country at age 7 as part of the wave of Vietnamese "boat people" in the 1970s-noticed she was feeling weak during a vacation last year. The lifelong runner was shocked to learn she had myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a life-threatening disorder that usually strikes older people. "I've never smoked, I eat right. There's a 'Why me?' component in this." More grim news: None of her five siblings was a match; she'd need an unrelated donor.

Rather than dwelling on her bad luck, Reiss is thrilled she may have been able to help people like Matthew Nguyen, 28, a pharmacy student from San Francisco diagnosed with leukemia in 2007. On dialysis, he finally found a match in early 2009, shortly after one of Reiss' drives, and is in remission. "I owe Anh gratitude," he says, "that I can never repay."

Although Reiss has yet to find her own life-saving match, she controls her condition through medication-she's back to practicing medicine full-time and works out four days a week-and treasures every moment with Josh and children Alexandra, 19, and Aaron, 15. "No one is guaranteed more time," she says. "Whatever time I have, I'm going to make the most of it."

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