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Strength in Numbers

Strength in NumbersStudents from The Fletcher School organize the largest university bone marrow donor drive in support of one of their own.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.15.08] Wednesday mornings on the Hill finds students commencing their daily routines. Perhaps they begin with a morning run or some last minute cramming. For Fletcher School student Erica Murray, in the fall of 2007, her Wednesdays began with chemotherapy.

While balancing a full class load, Murray spent those mornings being treated for acute lymphocytic leukemia. She was diagnosed in February 2006, a month after arriving at Tufts.

Despite the fact that she was undergoing rigorous treatment, Murray maintained high spirits, attending classes, conferences and study groups with the rest of her classmates.

"She is a tiny bundle of smiles," says Adria Chamberlain (F'08), one of Murray's former roommates. "She is a very happy, open and endearing person and everyone who meets her loves her."

Murray came to Tufts after earning a bachelor's degree from Occidental College in comparative literature and politics. In 2004, she spent a year in Kawasaki City, Japan, teaching English to Japanese children. Murray is currently halfway to receiving a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at The Fletcher School.

It wasn't long before her absence at the beginning of the spring semester began to make waves. Two years after her initial diagnosis, the cancer had returned, making a bone marrow transplant inevitable.

"I think Erica's re-diagnosis and the fact that she didn't go into remission just catalyzed a lot of people into thinking about what could we do to help," says Kristen Zecchi, associate director of admissions and financial aid at The Fletcher School. "For me personally, it was a moment where I was like 'Hmm, we have a great community here. I wonder what it would take to do a drive.'"

After she pulled all the logistics together, Zecchi says Fletcher students quickly picked up the ball and ran with it.

Marketing about the drive began to go up all around campus and beyond, reaching the greater Boston area where many students take additional classes.

If you missed your chance to participate in this drive, between now and Monday, May 19, the National Marrow Donor Program is suppling donors with free testing kits, foregoing the normal $52 lab fees. Those interested are encouraged to sign up for their free kit at www.marrow.org.

"I was really ambitious," says Corey O'Hara (F'08), one of the student organizers. "I wanted everyone at Tufts University to donate. I didn't realize that with a regular university drive only 70 people are usually expected to show up. That was shocking to me."

A few hours into the April 2 drive, however, it became apparent that this was not going to be a typical drive. Thinking 300 kits was more than sufficient for the event, Betty Kelly from the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) was soon faced with her last, almost empty, box of kits.

"I began to wonder what would happen if they ran out of kits, and then Kristen said she bet Dana Farber could supply us with extra kits," O'Hara says. "Before she even got off the phone, Justin Valentine (F'08) and I were in the car headed to Boston."

Bringing back another 150 kits, the drive helped add well over 400 donors to the registry.

"There were streams and streams of people, it was hard to keep up," Chamberlain says. "I was impressed by the extremely strong turnout from the undergraduates."

In addition to the undergraduate community, there was also a strong turnout of minorities, one of the most valuable yet most under-represented groups, currently making up only 3 percent of the registry. In Murray's case, being Eurasian, the need for non-Caucasian donors was crucial.

"Because of this great need, the NMDP originally offered to waive the cost of every non-Caucasian donor that registered," Zecchi says. "In the end, [Kelly] was so impressed and overwhelmed by the turn out that she said she wouldn't charge us for any of the donors."

"The NMDP organizer said that this was by far their largest university drive, and the second largest they had ever done," says Chamberlain. "She told us to send the money we had raised to Erica, which Erica is now using as a visitors fund to help defer the cost of hotels and food for her visitors, who are truly more important than anything to her."

Erica and her sister Jaci sing a song to the tune of Barenaked Ladies' "If I Had a Million Dollars," urging viewers to become marrow donors.

Despite undergoing treatment on the other side of the country, Murray has still made efforts to stay connected to The Fletcher School community, including being an internet participant in this year's Fletcher Follies annual skit.

"She was able to participate through Skype [an internet telephone program], and as soon as she came on the screen everyone cheered and she just sat there giggling," Chamberlain says. "She participated in a skit, comparing herself to Britney Spears after she shaved her head.

"She has a wonderful sense of humor and approaches everything with such a great attitude."

At the beginning of the month, Murray received the transplant and is currently waiting to see if it was successful. In the meantime, members of The Fletcher School are continuing to spread the word about the NMDP, in the hopes of sparing others from having to experience Murray's Wednesday routine.

Profile by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications

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