In April, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team partnered with Be The Match and the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation to host an on-campus donor recruitment drive.
The goal: Spread the word to college students about “Get in the Game. Save a Life.”—a nationwide Be The Match initiative to educate collegiate athletes and their peers about how a blood stem cell or bone marrow transplant from a healthy donor can cure people diagnosed with life-threatening blood cancers and blood disorders. Once aware of the importance of blood stem cell and marrow donations, students can then register as a donor for the Be The Match Registry by completing a simple cheek swab test.
The result: Thanks to the efforts of Mocs football student-athletes, 200 members of the campus community were added to the national registry.
Be The Match wants to inform the entire campus about the work of Head Coach Rusty Wright and the football team.
“We want any group we work with to have a great experience; obviously, they’re helping promote our mission, but we want them to be promoted on campus as well,” said Be The Match account manager Amanda Cooley, whose territory includes Tennessee and North Carolina. “We want the chancellor and those on campus to know the good work being done.
“It’s something to be very proud of. We want to commend the football players and thank the campus as a whole.”
Cooley said the football players did “fantastic” work educating and recruiting UTC students during her campus visit.
“The day before the event, we met with the team, educated them and helped them understand what Be The Match is and what they would be helping us do,” she said. “When we seek to add people to the registry, we want them to know what they’re signing up for. Once the team was out there helping us, other students see the football team out and they were like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’
“The team did a fantastic job. They were even out there running around out with cowbells and capes.”
Cooley said she and other Be The Match personnel work to add college students to the registry because doctors request donors usually be as young as possible.
“These younger 18- to 24-year-olds are usually in better health,” she said. “As you age, your stem cells are just not as robust.”
The Mocs football team has been involved with Be The Match since 2011, adding 1,189 people to the registry over the years. Nine have gone on to become matches, providing life-saving stem cell or bone marrow donations.
“We are very thankful for the opportunity to bring awareness to the ‘Get in the Game, Save a Life’ program,” said Wright, who received a bachelor’s degree from UTC in 1996. “Also, we’re very appreciative of (UTC Director of Football Operations) Emily Baustert taking a leadership role in our involvement.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. Registering as a potential donor for the Be The Match Registry takes about five minutes, but the impact could literally last a lifetime.”
According to Be The Match, 12,000 patients annually are diagnosed with life-threatening blood cancers or other diseases like sickle cell, for which a blood stem cell transplant from an unrelated donor may be their best or only hope for a cure. A blood stem cell transplant can cure or treat more than 75 diseases, including leukemia and lymphoma, aplastic anemia and immune deficiency disorders.
Cooley said 70% of patients do not have a fully matched donor in their family and depend on Be The Match to find an unrelated donor.
“These are not common blood-type matches,” she explained. “It’s a very unique match. We have some proteins in our cells that run our immune system called HLA (human leukocyte antigen) markers. Those have to match between a searching patient and a potential donor.”
At events like the one at UTC, people “swab their cheek and leave that with us,” she said. The cheek swab is how they are able to test for HLA used to match patients and donors for bone marrow or cord blood transplants.
“Then we FedEx those off immediately to our testing center. They get tested and folks get added to the registry. Once someone’s added to the registry, it’s really waiting to see, do they ever get matched with someone.”
Cooley has first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be the match. Before she became an employee, she joined the Be The Match Registry after her aunt, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Coach Sylvia Hatchell, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2013.
“When a patient is diagnosed, they are looking at treatment options; they don’t know what all they may need to do for the patient,” Cooley explained. “For my aunt, they weren’t sure if she would need a bone marrow transplant or a stem cell transplant, so we all joined the registry just in case she needed us as a potential match. She didn’t.
“I got a call a couple of years later; I was a match for a young man. All they could tell me was he was overseas, he had a blood disorder and that he was about 15 years old—so I went in and donated. It was a great opportunity and I would do it again if it was asked of me.”
While much of the publicity around the “Get in the Game. Save a Life.” program comes from tie-ins with more than 325 college athletic programs across the country, Cooley said Be The Match works with all student organizations.
“We want to help students develop and give them opportunities to grow and learn,” she said. “We work with organizations or students wanting to go into biological sciences or med school and this will help them with their resume or development.”
Cooley encouraged UTC student groups to email her (acooley2@NMDP.ORG) to learn about partnering with Be The Match. Individuals interested in signing up for the registry should text UTC to 61474.