When senior Jamie Katz was seven years old, her cousin Amy was diagnosed with leukemia. Ever since, Katz and her family have been holding bone marrow drives to find a match for Amy. 

Although they have not yet found her bone marrow match, they have helped over 40 people find theirs.

Katz is a campus ambassador for Gift of Life, an organization that sponsors anyone between the ages of 18 and 45 to join the national bone marrow registry by waiving the $60 fee for processing each swab kit. Taking a cheek swab and filling out a consent form are the only steps needed to join the registry.

In the U.S., one person is diagnosed with a blood cancer every three minutes, according to bethematch.org. Treatments depend on various factors, including a person’s age, the type of cancer and how fast it is progressing, according to cancercenter.com. But receiving a bone marrow transplant from a donor is often the only cure.

Although 30 percent of patients will find a match within their family, the remaining 70 percent will look to the national bone marrow registry for a match, according to Institute for Justice.

Katz holds drives for campus organizations, including Greek life, academic and service fraternities. Since becoming an ambassador in January, she has swabbed 449 potential donors, earning her the title of Gift of Life’s Campus Ambassador Program Rookie of the Year.

“It is not typical that a volunteer comes in and works that quickly,” Gift of Life Community Engagement Coordinator Krissy Kelly said. “She goes above and beyond pretty much all the time.”

Katz’s older sister Lindsay was a Gift of Life campus ambassador at High Point University and now works full time at the organization. Katz’s cousin and younger sister are also involved in holding drives.

“Among our whole family, Gift of Life has been a common point and something that we are all actively involved in,” Lindsay Katz said. “Every time I go to sit with a donor or go to the hospital, it’s a reminder of how quite literally we are changing people’s lives.”

Senior Emma Gorman understands how important Katz’s work is for Gift of Life. 

When she was 10 years old, Gorman’s father, Peter, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and given a 25 percent chance of survival. The family found out that he needed a bone marrow transplant. After all the members of the family were swabbed, Peter’s older brother ended up being a match.

After the bone marrow transplant, Peter’s blood type changed from A+ to B+.

“‘Be positive’ became our family’s motto throughout the difficult time and we continue to spread that message to others,” Gorman said. “What Jamie does is so important because she embodies the idea of taking a difficult situation and turning it into a positive message.”

Gorman is the volunteer coordinator for Camp Kesem at UR, a community organization that supports children through and beyond their parent’s cancer, according to the Camp Kesem website. In April 2016, the group participated in a bone marrow drive.

It was at this drive that senior Tyler Anderson was swabbed to join the registry. On January 9 of the following year, he found out that he was a match. 

Before going through with the procedure, Anderson received an email informing him that the patient was no longer a candidate for a transplant. But before this news, Anderson remembers feeling excited about the process and the possibility of saving someone’s life, he said.

“Even though you can’t learn who the patient is or their name until at least one year after the donation, you still build some kind of bond with them,” Anderson said. “It’s the kind of thing you don’t need to know them to feel attached.”

Students such as Anderson, and the members of Katz’s family, inspire her to continue her work. This semester, Katz hopes to introduce a Gift of Life club on campus to train members to hold drives and continue her work at UR and in the surrounding Richmond area, she said.

“I want to make sure that Gift of Life carries on at UR and doesn’t leave with me when I graduate,” she said.

Katz also hopes to hold drives with Virginia Commonwealth University organizations, in part to bring more genetic diversity to the bone marrow registry since VCU has a larger proportion of students from diverse backgrounds, she said.

“Most people don’t realize that for a patient battling blood cancer, their chances of finding a match are dependent on their ethnic background,” said Nick Hudson, associate director of development at Gift of Life. “The way we measure compatibility is essentially DNA, so people who share the same heritage are more likely to find a match.”

Because of discrepancies in ethnic representation in the bone marrow registry, the likelihood of a white patient finding a match is 97 percent, compared to 80 percent for Hispanics, 77 percent for American Indians, 72 percent for Asians and 66 percent for African Americans, according to bethematch.org

Hudson joined the registry at a drive for Amy in 2006 and became a match with a 4-year-old boy battling cancer. Inspired by the bone marrow donor process, he went to work for Gift of Life and founded the Campus Ambassador Program, which now has 167 student ambassadors around the country, including Katz.

“Jamie is potentially saving hundreds of people’s lives by getting as many students to sign up as possible to be on the registry,” Anderson said. “It all starts with people like Jamie.”

Contact contributor Alice Millerchip at alice.millerchip@richmond.edu.