Jennifer Turck, MPA ’09, enrolled in Binghamton University’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) program to enhance her knowledge and advance her career. She never expected the program to change her life, but that’s exactly what happened.
Turck, 44, remembers walking past a table on campus where another MPA student, Gia Vera, MPA ’08, was recruiting people to add their names to a list of potential bone marrow donors.
“I wish I could say I was moved by some great inspiration,” laughs Turck, who was scheduled to graduate three days later. “But I was just walking by — it was that easy. They asked if I would put my name on the registry. I said ‘sure,’ and really didn’t think about it again.”
A few weeks later, she got a call from Be The Match, a nonprofit organization that is part of the National Marrow Donor Program. Be The Match encourages people to add their names to the bone marrow registry and then facilitates matching them with leukemia patients and others who need marrow transplants.
“They told me I was a preliminary match for a young girl who had an acute form of leukemia and asked me if I’d come in for a blood draw,” says Turck, who’s the mother of three children. “It’s not extraordinary that somebody would say yes to that, I don’t think. So of course, I agreed.”
Several weeks after the blood test, Turck got the news: She was a perfect match for the little girl.
Vera and Turck came together because of Vera’s capstone project, which is required of all Binghamton MPA students. The projects are designed to solve a practical problem for a real organization that the student has worked with. Vera was motivated to work on bone marrow donations because of an internship with the Icla da Silva Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that recruits and supports bone marrow donors. The foundation emphasizes increasing diversity among its donors, especially in the Latino community because the number of Latinos registered for testing is low.
Be The Match says that every year more than 10,000 patients in the United States are diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or other life-threatening diseases for which bone marrow transplants offer the best hope of a cure. About 70 percent of those patients do not find matches in their immediate families, forcing them to rely on the national registry; the registry contains data on more than 8 million potential donors.
That said, there is a tremendous need for minority donors. Currently, African Americans make up only 6 percent of the registry, Asians make up 7 percent, and Latino donors are 10 percent of the total number registered. Patients have the best chance of finding a match in a donor of the same racial background.
Vera’s capstone project added more people to the national registry. David Campbell, assistant professor in the College of Community and Public Affairs, says that while finding at least one on-campus donor was extraordinary for the two women, he wasn’t surprised that Vera’s capstone project was a success.
“In some ways, it was fairly typical,” he says. “All students who graduate from the program have to do a capstone.” Most design a project that combines collecting and analyzing data with hands-on projects like Vera’s, while others work with organizations to help solve problems.
“Gia set up a table in the downtown center and invited people to sign up,” he says, noting that she got a long list of recruits, including him. “She corralled me when I was going downtown for a cup of coffee.”
“Gia recognized how vulnerable these people are,” he says, and how dependent they are on finding a bone marrow match. Signing people up for the registry didn’t have to be part of the capstone, Campbell says, but she’s not the first to go beyond what is expected. “A couple of people have done additional work like she did. It becomes obvious to them. While they’re doing the capstone, they decide to do this outreach. And their lives are changed sometimes.”
In preparation for the extraction of her marrow, Turck underwent myriad medical tests, ate an iron-rich diet and donated a pint of blood that she would get back after the donation. Turck says the donation rarely left her mind as she concentrated on staying as healthy as possible. “It’s almost like being pregnant,” she says. “I was responsible for another life.”
Turck traveled to Washington, D.C., for the extraction, and two days later learned the little girl had received the marrow. She says the experience changed her outlook on life, starting with the mo-ment she woke up from surgery feeling no worse than she would after a rigorous workout. “I woke up in that recovery room and thought, ‘I’d love to do this again.’ It felt amazing to be able to do something like that.”
According to confidentiality guidelines, donors and recipients cannot have personal contact until a year or more after donation, and only if both consent. In the meantime, there are updates. Turck says a report earlier this summer that the child was recovering was followed by sad news in August: The National Marrow Donor Program contacted her to say that the little girl who received her marrow had suffered a relapse, and her parents had decided to discontinue treatment.
“I realized I had never anticipated anything but the happiest ending to this story,” she says. “I was devastated.”
And then she received a note from the little girl’s parents, thanking her for allowing them a few precious months with their daughter that would have otherwise been impossible.
“I did not and do not regret offering my help,” Turck says. “This experience will always be one of the most precious experiences of my life. I am so grateful to these parents for letting me see the incredible value of hope and time, even if a miracle is not to be. My name remains on the bone marrow registry. It would be my privilege to be asked to donate again.”