Jonnie Morath lost his best friend Teina Terei in 2016 to leukaemia. Now he's advocating for more young Māori and Pasifika people to donate blood to save lives. 

Jonnie works closely with Trust Teina, a charitable trust raising awareness around blood, organ and bone marrow donations.

According to Jonnie, there are around 40 million donors worldwide, and 25 million are European. 

But he says there are only around 9000 Māori and Pasifika, who are registered and can give blood.

Re: News spoke to Jonnie (Leimatu’a, Vava’u - Tonga) about why New Zealand needs more blood donations and his message to young Māori and Pasifika people who might be nervous about donating.

Jonnie Morath. Photo: supplied.

Why is young Māori and Pasifika blood in high demand?

Blood donations are the pathway to getting more bone marrow donations.

Statistics show there's an obvious drop off when it comes to Māori and Pasifika donating. 

I believe there's a lot of tapu and culture behind not donating, but what we’re trying to do is educate and inspire those looking to donate. 

I believe most people have been affected by someone who's had cancer in their life. If we all had that opportunity to give back or save a life, I think we'd all raise our hands and jump in there.

Anyone can receive or give blood to anyone, but bone marrow is based on genetics.

When it comes to bone marrow - it needs to be a genetic match, this is because only certain types of bone marrow can match with others.

For example, I come from a Tongan background so my bone marrow would match with another Tongan.

There has to be a genetic connection. 

What would the blood donations be used for?

The blood is mostly used for blood transfusions, illnesses, and accidents. When it comes to blood, one donation saves three lives. 

We're also hoping that by encouraging people to donate blood they will donate bone marrow too, because that list is even smaller.

Why is this important to you?

My friend Teina passed away back in 2016 due to acute myeloid leukemia.

In 2014, he underwent a procedure draining excessive fluid around his heart, but never bounced back as they said he should.

They kept pushing for more tests and answers and he was officially given his diagnosis on April 1, 2015, of acute myeloid leukemia, then gained remission around August 2015.

I met Teina in 2014 and we spent a lot of time training and laughing together. He was a pretty good mate of mine so when it returned it felt so sudden.

I remember the process. I was literally talking to him in the early hours of the morning. 

He'd been in hospital. We had been messaging and then I went to bed. 

When I woke up towards midday, I had messages from people saying, “I'm so sorry for your loss” and thought someone in my family passed away, I wasn't sure what happened.

It was unreal. I couldn't believe what had taken place.  

It wasn't until I became a match for the bone marrow process, that I realised how important it was to give blood and bone marrow, and how much of an effect it made but also how much it's lacking in our community. 

To give someone the ultimate koha and keep his memory alive is the greatest tribute I could give to him.

I know that when Teina was unwell his family was in the process of trying to get bone marrow.

Jonnie’s friend Teina Terei. Photo: supplied.

Did losing your best friend push you to start donating bone marrow?

100%. After he passed away his family started the trust and there was a big push to start donating bone marrow.

How does one donate?

Anyone can just go to the New Zealand Blood Service website, and they can register.

Or they can walk into any New Zealand Blood Service that comes up. 

At the time when people would talk about donating bone marrow, the idea was that collectors would drill into your hip or into your spine to take it.

There was a lot of misunderstanding around the process.

How they actually do it is once you’ve become a match on the bone marrow register they do a medical assessment and they give you four days worth of injections which you take at home to increase the number of blood stem cells, with a hormone-like substance called G-CSF.

After the fourth day of injections, you go back to the New Zealand Blood Service where you get hooked up to a machine where stem cells are then collected by a procedure called leukapheresis. 

During this procedure, a needle is inserted into a vein in your arm and your blood passes into a cell separator machine, which selectively removes the stem cells. The remaining blood components are immediately returned to you.

Are there any requirements?

Most people can donate. Smokers are fine. Drinkers are all good, even people on recreational drugs are fine.

People who can’t donate are usually people with diabetes on insulin, pregnant or breastfeeding, and then people who have just gotten tattoos usually have a three-month stand-down period.

All the information is available on the New Zealand Blood Service website and the blood collectors usually talk with you beforehand. 

[Editor’s note: The NZ Blood Service also requires blood donors to be between the ages of 16 - 70, and does not allow men who have sex with men to donate for three months after oral or anal sex.]

What about young Māori and Pasifika people who are scared to donate blood? What is your message to them?

We think we're invincible. And the thing is, none of us are. 

You have to pay it forward. Because at the end of the day, there will come a time when it's going to come full circle, and you're going to be the person who might need it.

It’s an amazing thing that you can do for someone else.

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