Fighting leukemia

Picture a 21-year-old girl. She’s an excellent student, she’s beautiful, she’s known for spreading laughter, smiles and love wherever she goes. Sound like someone you know at Williams? Perhaps a senior, ready to embark upon the beginning of great things – Teach for America, Capitol Hill – out to change the world. That was my sister, Katharine, who was a senior psychology major at Hamilton College. She was one of the brightest lights in this world – until late September when she was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). For the next five weeks, I spent every available moment driving the six hours from school to Christiana Hospital in Delaware, sitting day and night by her bed in the ICU or the bone marrow unit. There were a few, precious days when she was not intubated and heavily sedated and could actually communicate. She made it to one rehab session, when she was made to get out of her bed and sit in a chair, utterly exhausted by the end. This was the last time I saw her, sitting in that chair with tubes and blinking lights everywhere, alarms going off every three minutes whenever her heartbeat would go wildly irregular.

Casey passed away on October 17, 2008, and the support I have received from the Williams community has been absolutely incredible – without it, I would not have finished the semester. When I came back to school, I felt like I was collecting band-aids, searching for a cure-all for the pain; in the end, there was none. The world of Williams moves terribly fast – and when you’ve been thrust outside of it, irrevocably changed, that world seems even scarier. I talked to my professors, my friends, the grief group, and I considered going to Psychological Counseling Services at one point. I went through the motions in all my classes, feeling the distant tug of some kind of academic drive I had had before – but that motivation felt alien to me. Eventually, my professors and the deans helped me arrange taking my finals at home, and I managed to finish the semester. Somehow, I returned this spring with somewhat more peace and little more resolve.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been organizing a bone marrow registry drive at Williams from to be held April 9-11 in Casey’s memory. I’m once again asking for Williams’ support to make this drive a worthy success and to give hope to patients whose only shot at surviving leukemia is through bone marrow donation.

Claiming Williams was a day of great ideas and great sentiments, but I realized that that was really all it amounted to – a mountain of intangibles. We can talk and talk about celebrating and respecting the diversity on our campus, or we can use it to impact the world. The bone marrow registry drive could offer us a chance to turn those abstractions into actions – tangible, concrete results. Every patient, regardless of race, should have an equal chance at finding a compatible donor. Together, we could save lives and at the very least, offer hope to patients who are fortunate enough to reach that stage where they have a real shot at recovery. Can you imagine sitting in that hospital bed, wondering if there is a donor out there for you? Have they registered? Will they be willing to spend a day in this world of needles and fear, in order to save your life?

There are many misconceptions about the donation process. First, joining the registry is easy; it takes only a few minutes, and you are a member until you are 60. The process merely entails filling out a registration form and swabbing the inside of your cheeks. This buccal swab is tested in order to determine your tissue type; a successful marrow transplant requires the use of compatible tissue in the hope that the recipient’s body will accept it as its own.

A lucky 25 to 30 percent of patients have an eligible family member with compatible tissue. My sister, though she never reached that stage, matched both our little sister and me. For the other 70 percent of patients, however, a compatible donor must be found elsewhere; tissue type is inherited and so a huge factor in compatibility is ethnicity. The makeup of the six million people on the national registry is less than 10 percent each African American, Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic, and 75 percent Caucasian. Clearly, there is a hole that needs to be filled. Let’s put our campus’ diversity to a tangible end.

Susannah Eckman ’11 is from Chadds Ford, Pa. She lives in Parsons.

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