Story by Hope McPherson
Photo by Jimi Lott
Photo by Jimi Lott
Associate Professor Cindy Fitch and senior Anne Marie Olney worked together to bring Olney's honors project to life.
As you read this, approximately 3,000 sick children and adults in the United States, most fighting leukemia, are seeking bone marrow transplants. For them, finding a perfect donor is their only hope for survival. Seattle Pacific University senior Anne Marie Olney and Associate Professor of Biology Cynthia Fitch are doing something to help them find their match.
Recipients of SPU's first annual "Living and Learning Grant," Olney and Fitch are putting Olney's senior honors project -- "Life Through the Body and the Blood: A Christian's Call to Bone Marrow Donation" -- into action. On April 26, they spearheaded a bone marrow donor drive for the Seattle Pacific University community.
For Olney, who plans to be a physician assistant, the drive was the natural integration of her Christian faith and biology degree. Says her professor, "Far more good will come from this than you can ever imagine."
Three years ago, during the summer of her freshman year, Olney interned at the Puget Sound Blood Center. With the bone marrow donation coordinator out (battling cancer himself), she stepped into the position and saw firsthand the donor program's impact. "Every day is life and death," Olney says. "People are dying and you can't find a match. . . . But then there are the successes."
Those successes are possible because of new technological advances. Not long ago, a leukemia diagnosis was nearly always a death sentence, with the blood cancer damaging the body's vital bone marrow -- the spongy substance that fills our bones and where most blood cells are created. By the 1970s, scientists could transfer healthy bone marrow from a family member into a patient. By the mid 1980s, technology allowed matches with unrelated donors.
Since then, nearly four million people have joined the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) by giving only a small blood sample. With their help, nearly 10,000 transplant recipients have found matches and another chance to beat cancer. Still more donors are needed, however, and that spurred Olney and Fitch into a collaboration made possible by a new grant program at SPU.
Seattle Pacific Dean of Students Kathleen Braden initiated the Living and Learning Grant last fall. The $3,000 annual award unites scholarship and action while teaming students, faculty and Office of Student Life staff. When Fitch saw the announcement, she immediately contacted Olney, who was working on her University Scholars senior project, a paper about bone marrow donation and its significance for Christians.
Olney jumped at the chance. "I wanted to do something to impact lives and help people more than a paper could," she says. She contacted the Puget Sound Blood Center to discuss a drive at SPU; then she and Fitch submitted a proposal. They were awarded the grant.
"What I loved about their grant proposal wasn't only its pragmatic side -- that it would help a good cause -- but also how wonderfully Cindy and Anne Marie made the argument of the uniquely Christ-like gift you make when you sign up to donate your bone marrow," says Braden. Professor of English Janet Blum-berg, who directs the University Scholars, agrees: "Anne Marie's project brings medicine and technology into the dimension of Christian sacrificial love."
Joined by Anthony Barr-Jeffrey, interim coordinator of multi-ethnic programs, Olney and Fitch spent weeks educating and informing the community about bone marrow donation. Barr-Jeffrey specifically focused on non-whites, who are under-represented in the registry but whose need is just as acute. "We're fooling ourselves if we ignore the fact that we survive and thrive because of family and community," says Barr-Jeffrey. "We have to give back in order to leave a meaningful legacy."
In April, the Puget Sound Blood Center expanded its already scheduled blood drive at First Free Methodist Church to include the Olney-Fitch drive to sign up potential bone marrow donors. The SPU Living and Learning Grant covered the high costs of testing. That day, 274 people came forward, including 22 minorities.
"Other pre-health-care students I've dealt with in the past have not exhibited the sort of determination and enthusiasm for this project that Anne Marie has," says Kim Allen, program supervisor of NMDP at the Puget Sound Blood Center. "I want to make that known."
Says Fitch, "We want our students to put faith into action, and this is just the tip of the iceberg."