Health and Harmony: FAU program seeks to boost bone-marrow registry with young donors

Related story: Boca Raton youngster’s drawing wins Gift of Life art contest

By Lona O'Connor

    When Crystal Mahannah signed up to be a campus ambassador for the Gift of Life bone marrow donor registry, it seemed like a good idea. Earn a modest stipend for persuading other students at Florida Atlantic University to swab the inside of their mouths and increase the chances that someone with a deadly blood disease might find a match.
    The idea, which was hatched by Nicholas Hudson and Alec Burkin independently and simultaneously, was so simple as to be genius: The best marrow donors are between the ages of 18 and 24. College campuses are full of such people. So, place campus ambassadors in as many colleges as possible to get the word out.
    “We have nearly 300,000 in the registry as a whole,” said Hudson. “Generally, one in 1,000 is a match. In the campus ambassador group, one in 150 is a match. So we said, ‘Why are we swabbing anyone but college students?’ ”
    Gift of Life was founded in Boca Raton in 1991 by Jay Feinberg, whose life was saved when a donor match was found during a massive drive by his family, which added 50,000 bone marrow donors to the registry.
    Since 1991, the Gift of Life registry has led to nearly 3,000 transplants.
    Hudson was swabbed in college. A year and a half later, he got a call saying he was a match for a 4-year-old boy with leukemia. They ended up meeting and remain friends to this day.
    Burkin also was swabbed in college and became a donor. Both men ended up working for Gift of Life after graduation, recruiting college students as potential donors — Burkin in the Boston office and Hudson in New York.
    “I am not at a college, so how am I supposed to run a drive on campus?” wondered Hudson, 30. “It’s a tough sell.”
    They talked every day by phone and developed a pilot program using eight student ambassadors as donor recruiters. That was last year. This year, there are 100 campus ambassadors, located in all 50 states, many recruited by the first group of ambassadors.
    Mahannah, 21, and her fellow FAU ambassador, Natalie Banks, set to work, staffing tables at student events, using catchy slogans like, “Will you marrow me?”
    They explained how easy the swab test was and how improved marrow collection now seldom requires a painful spinal tap. Today, 80 percent of marrow for donation is extracted from blood.
    One donor told Mahannah’s training group that he played basketball the day before and the day after his donation.
    During their first week back at FAU from summer break, Mahannah and Banks swabbed 35 students. Each ambassador is given a goal of swabbing 500 students and raising $500 each semester. In return, Gift of Life sends them $1,000 for each semester. Paying the ambassadors helps keep them focused on the goal, Hudson said.
    Mahannah’s commitment stems from the fact that both her grandparents were diagnosed with cancer and died two weeks apart, with no treatment available.
    “That’s what inspired me,” said Mahannah, an honor student who works in FAU’s student advisory services. “I remember how devastating it was to lose someone that important in my life. I tell everybody that to be a perfect match is like winning the lottery. You are this person’s only chance.”
    The next training for campus ambassadors will take place on Jan 5. To apply, or to join a 5K walk-run scheduled for Jan. 17 to benefit Gift of Life, visit Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation at www. or www.campus

Lona O’Connor has a lifelong interest in health and healthy living. Send column ideas to

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