Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Pearl Harbor Kai Elementary teacher holds blood drive in son’s memory

Donate on Tuesday, April 2, to help save lives

From left: Jan, Matthew and Clifford Inn. "That photo was taken in Seattle during Matt's treatment," said Jan Inn.

In July 2013, Pearl Harbor Kai Elementary fourth-grade teacher Jan Inn had her world turned upside down.

Her son, Matthew, had just turned 20 and even though “he was lifting weights, eating organic food, working out and running, so he looked super healthy,” Inn said he had a persistent infection and was also prone to fainting.

A trip to the doctor and several blood tests later, Inn got a worrisome call. “(The doctor) called on a Sunday night and said, ‘I want to talk to you first thing in the morning,’” Inn said. “The oncologist did a bone marrow aspiration, and that’s when we found out he had leukemia."

Matthew was diagnosed with biphenotypic leukemia and had to undergo treatment at the University of Washington Medical Center. “We had to fly to Seattle within 24 hours of his diagnosis,” Inn recalled. “We thought we were going to be there for three weeks. We stayed for 10 months.”

The experience exposed Inn to the importance of giving blood.

“Because the type of leukemia he had was rare and aggressive, they told us the only way to cure it was to get a bone marrow transplant, which never happened, because they couldn’t find a match,” Inn said. “Matt was selected for a clinical trial through Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which was conducting a trial on cord blood transplants. … The chemotherapy for that transplant is very toxic, way more toxic than regular chemotherapy. He also had to have full-body radiation for days, so he had to get blood transfusions—I can’t even count how many.”

Pearl Harbor Kai Elementary's Blood Drive
Tuesday, April 2, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Make an appointment here.

Matthew’s condition eventually improved and doctors allowed him to return home. But just over a year later, he caught the flu and, without a functioning immune system, could not recover. He died in May 2015.

“After he passed, people starting telling us stories about how he helped them. We weren’t shocked, but we were still amazed at how many people he helped,” Inn said.

With encouragement and support from her students, Inn decided to organize her first blood drive at the school. “He used a lot of blood products, and without all of that blood, he wouldn’t have survived (as long as he did),” she said. “(My students) did a lot of sign-waving and made posters to get the word out. They learned a lot about why blood is important. A lot of kids need blood and it’s not just one unit. They need multiple units.”

The drive was a resounding success. So many people showed up, the Blood Bank of Hawaii extended its hours to accommodate them.

This year, Inn hopes even more people will get involved, and not just to donate blood. Be the Match Hawaii will also be on hand to share information about bone marrow donation.

Inn also recently launched the Matthew Inn Foundation, which aims to support young adults in their journey of recovery. Her goal is to supply hospitals with gaming systems that can be sterilized while they undergo treatments.

It's her way, Inn says, of honoring her son’s memory and spirit.

“I think this is something that would make him happy, because he loved to help others,” Inn said. “He was always more worried about us than of himself. Even in the most dire times, he would make a joke and make all of us laugh. That’s the kind of person he was.

“As he was growing up, we would go to the market, and when I got to the car, I would turn around and he’d be gone. I was like, where did he go? Turns out, he’s helping an old woman carry her groceries to her car. How could I get mad?” she said.

During the first week of April, Pearl Harbor Kai Elementary students are also holding a Pennies for Patients fundraiser to support the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society—a 15-plus-year tradition at the school that, according to Inn, reflects their strong support system.

“Our motto is, ‘At the Kai, we care.’ As we were going through all of this, everyone at the school was so supportive. They kept in touch and sent him shirts and cards and snacks,” she said. “Pearl Harbor Kai is just a great community.”