Don’t bad-mouth high school seniors around Kathleen Parker.
“These young people are incredible,” Parker says with a mixture of pride and passion about students she has met all around the Kansas City area.
Parker knows what she’s talking about. Over the last three years, the retired human resources director has invited high school seniors to embrace her campaign — 18 and Swabbin’ — which is designed to register potential bone marrow donors who might one day save the lives of people afflicted by blood cancer.
Parker got involved in this cause because four of her nephews need bone marrow transplants. “Finding a match is like winning the lottery,” is the maxim offered by Delete Blood Cancer, the nonprofit national group that Parker and her family work with.
In discussing news that still chokes her up a bit, Parker this week said a match has been found for one relative. The transplant is scheduled for May.
That immensely positive development has given Parker, along with her husband Randy, even more reasons to promote 18 and Swabbin’ to students, teachers and school administrators.
The program has a simple concept: Sign up 18-year-olds in the late spring of their senior years as potential donors. That gives them more than four decades to become the needle in the haystack that cancer patients desperately need. A short video gives students of legal age the background on why the campaign is important.
In three years, volunteers have swabbed inside the mouths of about 4,000 students at almost three dozen public and private high schools in Kansas City, Blue Springs, Overland Park, Olathe, Lee’s Summit and other cities.
The swabs collect cells for human leukocyte antigen (HAL) tissue typing, which checks if tissue is compatible for transplant to another person, found through a national database. Parker’s program has found about 80 matches.
“You have some of the most idealistic young students who want to give back and help their community,” Parker says. They “have the feeling that I’m connected with something bigger than myself.”
At one rally at Turner High School in Kansas City, Kan., Parker wondered whether her invitation was getting through until it came time to ask if anyone wanted to become registered.
“They were literally jumping over their chairs to get swabbed,” Parker says, beaming as she recalls the moment.
Leadership groups such as the National Honor Society and student councils provide a key pipeline for the campaign.
Delaney Swanson was student body president when she ran an 18 and Swabbin’ drive in 2014 at Raymore-Peculiar High School.
“Working with (Parker) was such a joy,” says Swanson, now a nursing student at Truman State University.
Erin Rasmussen participated in 18 and Swabbin’ when she was a senior in 2013 at St. Teresa’s Academy in Kansas City. In an interview, she recalls thinking then, “I probably will never become a match.”
Yet a few months later, as Rasmussen prepared to attend Webster University in St. Louis, she was matched to a patient. She flew to Washington, D.C., for extra tests to confirm that news and made the donation that October. As Parker and Delete Blood Cancer officials point out, donors don’t have to pay the costs of flights, hotels or other expenses.
Rasmussen’s case did not have a storybook ending; the patient died soon after receiving the transplant. But as Rasmussen astutely says, “Any amount of time you can provide to a patient or family is worth it.”
Rasmussen remains involved in the cause. One event at Webster netted more than 100 registrations — illustrating the compassion that Parker treasures in young people.
Parker also is constantly searching for high school teachers who can explain to their students the importance of the campaign. Sue Rippe, an award-winning biology instructor at Olathe Northwest High School, fits the bill well.
Rippe says she got interested in 18 and Swabbin’ because it was the “perfect fit” for making science relevant to her students. She said registration efforts have exploded as students have taken charge of providing posters and other information to promote the campaign.
“This was a great way to utilize all the talents of our kids,” says Rippe. A few have even received the “all-important phone call” that they might be a match.
Parker lauds Rippe’s efforts and says about 300 students joined the registry last spring at Olathe Northwest, the largest number of any school.
After 34 years of teaching, Rippe says she’s ready for retirement. One of her plans is to provide even more personal help to Parker and her “incredible family” in the fight against blood cancer.
Parker is pleased with the progress of 18 and Swabbin’ even while realizing the campaign counts on word of mouth to find more teachers, students and administrators who will take up the cause at high schools, especially in the urban core. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Ultimately, Parker hopes she will hear many more uplifting stories like those of Maria Lichter, a radio host in Baltimore.
Lichter, diagnosed with leukemia in 2014, ultimately found a match with a person signed up through a bone marrow drive that Parker’s family had held in 2012 at a local church.
“I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kindness,” Lichter wrote to Parker in late December. “My young boys, ages 8 and 10, thank you for making sure their mother lived to raise them.”
As Parker notes, this miracle didn’t occur because of 18 and Swabbin’ but because of her family’s early — and ongoing — approach of also registering potential donors at churches and businesses.
High school seniors are now Parker’s main focus for a good reason.
“At anytime in their life they could be called to be a potential donor,” she says.
When Kathleen Parker says that, hope seems to fill her Leawood house. That hope needs to be shared with more high school seniors in this area through the 18 and Swabbin’ campaign.
Citizens of 2015
With an assist from readers, The Star’s editorial board selected five persons who have made a difference in 2015. Stories of the nominees ran this week on the Opinion page. The Citizen of 2015 will be profiled on Sunday.