Actors often refer to the Broadway community as a big family, but the ties that bind were truly tested in 2010 backstage at Disney’s The Lion King. Shannon Tavarez, the production’s Young Nala, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia at the age of 11. The only thing that could save her was a bone marrow transplant, used to treat blood cancers, but there were no matches in the medical database.
“Her mother put out an appeal to any and everyone who would listen and asked if we would get swabbed [to see if we were a match], knowing that you could potentially be the person to help with Shannon,” says veteran Lion King cast member and universal swing Chondra Profit Ardrey. Prior to that moment, Ardrey had never heard of the DKMS Bone Marrow Registry (affiliated with the National Marrow Donor Program) or that, at the time, there were “[few] ethnic people registered to help other people of color.” According to stats from 2010, only seven percent of those in the registry were black, seven percent Asian, and ten percent Hispanic. Ardrey answered the call and got swabbed, tested to see if she could be Shannon’s match.
“We literally registered over 10,000 people and [didn’t find a match],” says Ardrey. “Her leukemia was so rare that even with the mass outpour of people coming in to get swabbed to save her—we had ten companies [of The Lion King worldwide] and [nearly] the entire company of every single company got swabbed—and there was not one person who was a large enough match to make any type of change in her progress.”
Though Shannon passed away in 2010, the work The Lion King family did—registering thousands of potential donors—was not for nothing.
In 2013, Ardrey received a call saying she was a match for someone in need. “At the time, I wasn’t even thinking of anyone else,” says Ardrey of when she first registered. “Out of 100 percent of people in the registry, it’s [less than] one percent that go through the entire process.” Per DKMS’ Be the Match program, about 1 in 430 registered members (0.23 percent) go through the full process.
“The percentage is very, very low. With me, I counted it as a blessing to be in that one percent.”
Ardrey donated bone marrow August 26, 2013, while working in The Lion King national tour; a double-blind procedure, she did not know who she was saving and who she saved did not know about her. “They don’t allow you to have contact for at least a year because it takes that amount of time for the process to know if it’s succeeded or failed,” Ardrey explains. But 11 months later, Ardrey found out her procedure was a success and was offered to learn the identity behind her recipient.
“His name is Silas and at the time was six turning seven,” says Ardrey of the boy she now calls her “literal blood brother.”
“He was literally on his death bed. I was his last resort,” says Ardrey. “They found me and they took from me two liters of bone marrow to replenish his entire body. He literally had no working blood in his system at all.
“He was very frail. It was a sight that no one will want to see their child in,” says Ardrey. “After I met him, they showed me pictures of his process. He went from being 78-90 pounds to 150 pounds.”
But even photos could not prepare Ardrey for the emotion she felt when she met Silas and his parents—who had flown in from their native Brazil—at the DKMS Gala, where Ardrey was honored for her contribution.
Of course, Ardrey also welcomed Silas and his family into The Lion King family. “My cast treated them like gold,” she recalls. “They got to see the show and go backstage and meet Simba and Nala and take pictures with Mufasa.”
Donating bone marrow is a more invasive procedure than a simple blood donation, and typically requires a minimum of six weeks to rehab. An actor and athlete committed to her craft, Ardrey was back on tour with The Lion King in six weeks, and has no qualms about her decision to endure a bit of pain to save a life. “The gratification is one that is unmatched,” she beams. “To know that someone was completely without and you were able to give them everything they needed and more is an amazing feeling.”
The actor urges everyone to get swabbed and enter the registry: “Do it. It’s so plain and so simple, but it really is a life-changing decision that changes your life and the outcome of someone else’s life. If you are a part of that one percent that is chosen, you’re chosen for a reason.”
You can get swabbed and enter the registry today (and registering is not a binding commitment to donate).
Visit GetSwabbed.org for a home swab kit to join the DKMS bone marrow registry. Or, for members of the Broadway community, get swabbed at the Actors Fund Friedman Health Care Center June 27. More information here.
Learn more at Shannon’s S.H.A.R.E. Foundation.