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When Rachel Buck ’19 registered to be a bone marrow donor at an event at the University of New Haven, she never thought she would end up helping to save the life of a child with cancer. But that’s exactly what she did – and she recently met the boy, who has recovered, and his family.
September 9, 2021
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When Rachel Buck ’19 was a first-year student at the University of New Haven, she signed up during an event on campus to be a bone marrow donor. She says she didn’t expect much to come out of it, but, years later, she ended up becoming a donor – and saving a young boy’s life.
“Having cancer strike my own family, like so many others, I thought why not register?” said Buck, a four-year member of the Chargers cheerleading team. “One of the statistics that was mentioned that really stuck with me was that only about 30 percent of patients can find a match within their family, leaving the other 70 percent to rely on the registry – strangers, basically. That really struck me because I couldn’t imagine having a family member in need like that and not being able to help them.”
Indeed, the Andy Talley Foundation, whose mission is to register young, committed donors to be part of the Be the Match registry, reports that a patient’s sibling has only a 30 percent chance of matching their Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) type and becoming a possible donor. The Chargers football team teamed up with the foundation to host the “Get in the Game” event that Buck attended on campus to encourage members of the University community to register.
Shortly before Buck graduated, she got the call that she was a match. While on the phone answering health questions during a senior trip, she was told she was the number one match for a then one-year-old boy named Jacob. She agreed to be his donor, and hearing his story hit home.
“Learning he was 14 months old at the time really struck me since I have two nieces close to his age,” she explains. “I couldn’t even imagine what his family was going through. From that moment, I was very eager to do what I could.”
‘Their strength and resilience deserve recognition’
Because Jacob had an aggressive type of cancer, he needed a stem cell transplant. The first appointment for the “harvest” of Buck’s cells had to be rescheduled so that Jacob could complete another round of chemotherapy. This would ensure he was strong enough to receive her cells.
Just a few days before her birthday, Buck, who had recently moved to Boston, went to Brigham and Women's Hospital for the procedure, which took about an hour and a half. Doctors removed marrow from her pelvis while she was completely under anesthesia, and she was released the same day. Her lifesaving donation was then airlifted to the hospital in which Jacob was being treated.
“Although it was an intimidating experience when you’re looking at it all at once, the process was a breeze,” said Buck, a medical technologist in the clinical microbiology lab at Tufts Medical Center. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
A year after the procedure, Buck was allowed to release her information to Jacob’s family. They hoped to meet around the two-year anniversary of the transplant. When Buck got a call from her contact at Be the Match, she initially thought she was a match for someone else.
Instead, she was told the Worcester, Mass., Bravehearts baseball team was hosting events each Friday to encourage more people to sign up to be donors. On the last Friday of the season, they wanted to set up a donor-recipient meeting – with her and Jacob. The hope was that this would increase publicity and awareness of the need for more donors.
“I was insanely nervous,” admits Buck. “I was worried they wouldn’t like me, or that Jacob, being a three-year-old, would run away from me! They aren’t a family that seeks the limelight, but for everything they have been through, their strength and resilience deserve recognition.”
‘Rachel is a hero’
When Buck met Jacob and his family at the game last month, they immediately connected. Buck’s family and some of Jacob’s extended family were also in attendance, and the families spent the following weekend together. She describes meeting them as “emotional” and that she was on “cloud nine” following their meeting.
“It wasn’t until I met him in person that what I had done really began to sink in,” said Buck. “I feel like I just gained a whole family, and I could not be more thankful. It’s always been an honor to be a part of his journey, and to now be a part of his life moving forward is the greatest gift. It was like we all just clicked, and I felt like I’ve known them forever.
“I didn’t even realize how hard Jacob’s fight was until I met his transplant doctor,” continued Buck. “I got to sit on the ground and play with rocks with Jacob, and his transplant doctor said that a year ago, something as simple as this would not even be possible. It would have been too dangerous for him to do. To know that I was able to do something that was honestly so easy and simple and that could turn his life around, it’s unbelievable.”
Andy Talley, football head coach emeritus at Villanova University and president and founder of the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation, was also there when Buck met Jacob and his family.
“It was extremely heartwarming to see Rachel meet the little boy for the first time,” said Talley, an award-winning coach, advocate for marrow donation, and public speaker. “What an experience to see a life saver in person showing the world how to give back. Marrow donation is truly a gift of life, and in this case, Rachel is a hero. The University of New Haven is truly fortunate to have young women like Rachel who have given a three-year-old boy a chance for life!”
‘Being a donor is such a rewarding experience’
The event at which Buck registered to be a donor is one of many that have been held at the University of New Haven. The Chargers football team has a long history of helping their fellow Chargers register to be donors, and they have a longstanding relationship with Be the Match.
“For the eight years I have been the University’s head coach, and for five years before that, our student athletes on the football team have donated their time and energy to promoting the Be the Match program on campus,” said Christopher Pincince, head football coach at the University. “We are so happy that one of the members of our community was able to be matched up with a recipient through these efforts. We look forward to many more years working with the Be the Match program, and we wish Rachel and her match the best of luck in the future.”
Since only adults between the ages of 18 and 44 can register to be a match and because studies have shown that blood stem cells from younger donors lead to better survival rates for recipients, there is always a need for more people to register to be a match for someone such as Jacob. Buck hopes that her and Jacob’s story will encourage more people to register. She’s grateful that what she gave saved a life – and gave her “a new little brother.”
“Being a donor is such a rewarding experience,” she said. “Out of my 23 years of life, there has not been anything that can top this, and there probably won’t for quite some time. Being able to donate does so much more than help that one patient. You aren’t just saving the life of that patient, you are helping their families, their friends, their communities. The good that comes from this goes way beyond what you would think, and I was lucky enough to realize this when meeting Jacob’s family.”