On Wednesday, Nov. 6, the Be the Match Club at Fairfield University hosted a donor registration drive to encourage students to sign up to be a bone marrow donor.
Be the Match is an organization that seeks to help people who are suffering from blood cancer or blood diseases and are in need of a transplant. Be the Match, operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, provides patients with a way to find a transplant match, which could be their last chance for a cure. There is a large number of diseases that could be treated with a transplant, including Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, different types of leukemia and severe aplastic anemia.
The Be the Match Club at Fairfield University started in the fall of 2018 when a group of students was inspired by a fellow Stag who had to withdraw from school when he was re-diagnosed with cancer. The club’s goal is to spread awareness about the organization and increase the database of donors, so there is a greater chance for a patient to find their match.
“We’re trying to get as many people as possible to sign up,” Brian Gozzo ‘20, Vice President of the Be the Match Club, says. “Currently we’re at 20 million. We hope to one day have basically the entire planet, ideally, on it.”
A donor-patient match is found by having the donor swab the inside of their cheek to gather DNA that is tested against the patient. If the two have a similar human leukocyte antigen, they are a close match for a transplant. After signing up for the registry at Fairfield University, a cheek-swabbing kit will be sent to your house, and then will be sent back for the stem cells to be tested.
“It’s super simple,” Gozzo says. “All it takes is a cheek swab, and, like, five minutes of your time, and you’re put on [the registry] ‘till you’re 61. If you’re matched with someone right then, you’ll probably receive a phone call, and then that will take another couple weeks until you actually have to donate.”
If a match is found, the actual donation process could go one of two ways. One way to donate is to give peripheral blood stem cells, which is a non-surgical procedure that extracts blood through a needle, puts it through a machine that separates the blood cells and then returns the remaining blood into the body. The other option for donation is to give bone marrow through a surgical procedure that removes liquid marrow from the pelvic bone.
Gozzo understands that this can sound scary, but the chances of getting a phone call is pretty slim. He says that only one in about four hundred people on the registry will ever have to donate.
“One thing we want people to know is don’t be scared that we’re gonna call you and say the next day you have to be here, across the country and donate,” Gozzo said. “It’s a very lengthy process, there’s a lot of people involved and it’s very safe.”
For Gozzo, the most important thing is to spread awareness and increase the number of people on the registry and the chances of a life-saving donation. He says, “You could just sit on the registry until you turn 61 and never once receive a phone call, but just know that, like, you still were there and you’ve still done your part.”
Gozzo, a resident assistant, was motivated to form the Be the Match Club at Fairfield University with a few other RAs last year when the student had to withdraw. They reached out to Be the Match for help.
“When the student had to withdraw, a couple of the RAs wanted to know what we could do to help. Could we find a match for this kid?” Gozzo said. “Course, that’s very, very difficult.”
However, last year’s drive was not the first appearance Be the Match has made at Fairfield University. Senior Julia Giampietro and her roommate brought a Be the Match drive themselves to Fairfield in their sophomore year. She reached out to the Connecticut Be the Match region leader, who helped them set up a drive that brought over 60 students to join the national bone marrow donor registry. Giampietro was influenced to raise awareness for this organization for a personal reason.
“I wanted to bring [Be the Match] to Fairfield in honor of my cousin Christopher who passed away from AML Leukemia in October of my freshman year at Fairfield,” Giampietro said via email. “He went through a bone marrow transplant, was in remission and relapsed a year later. He received a second bone marrow transplant but the cancer took over his body… He was and still is the biggest inspiration in my life and no matter what would always say ‘it’s all good’ which is the motto my family and I live by now.”
Giampietro continued work with Be the Match throughout her junior and senior years. She was also inspired by the Fairfield student who had to withdraw last year, so she worked with students in younger grades to put on another drive in the fall of 2018, which is when the Be the Match Club was born. Giampietro and her roommate decided to put together an event for the student at the Seagrape Cafe, where they raised almost $2,000 for his family from donations at the door and from other Fairfield Students.
“That was probably the biggest accomplishment of our 3 years involved with Be the Match and was a great way to close the year and our time in the club,” Giampietro said. “It was also amazing to see how much support we got and the feeling of being able to make a small difference for a local peer and family.”
Although her time with Be the Match at Fairfield University is over, Giampietro has high hopes for the club and the organization in the years to come.
“My biggest hope really is to have students become more aware and educated about [Be the Match],” Giampietro said. “It is so important for people our age to be educated on this amazing cause because we are the ones who can save people’s lives.”
Be the Match will hold their next donor registration drive in the spring of 2020. To learn more about the organization or become a donor, visit https://bethematch.org/.