Wellesley College student Ifunanya, known to her family and friends as Ify, opened an email from a fellow student early in the fall 2020 semester, and knew she had to act. Her friend Alexi was a Gift of Life Campus Ambassador, and the message urged others to help fight blood cancer by joining the registry.
Although in-person drives couldn’t be held that fall due to the COVID pandemic, Ify immediately ordered a cheek swab kit from Gift of Life’s website.
Ify, a biochemistry major, already knew from her classes that it was possible to find stem cell donor matches for blood cancer patients among complete strangers, and that this could be her chance to save someone’s life.
“I received a call from Gift of Life less than six months after completing my swab kit,” said Ify. “I was in my dorm room and felt both shock and excitement that I would be able to help my recipient, a woman in her mid-forties battling severe aplastic anemia. I knew that the chance of being a match is pretty low, so I didn’t really expect to be called so soon.”
Since Ify’s family is in Nigeria she isn’t able to talk to them often, but she shared the news with friends on campus who told her she was doing something special.
“I was only weeks away from graduation, so my Gift of Life coordinator arranged for me to donate after the ceremony,” said Ify. She also invited Ify to have a tour of the entire facility during her stay, including the biobank and laboratory.
“I had my friend with me for support on my donation day, and the collection center staff did a great job,” said Ify. “We watched some shows on Netflix and had a really good lunch. The team decorated my donor pod with the Nigerian flag and a poster about reading books since I love to read. Everyone signed my Gift of Life blanket with all these funny poems on it – I really love that blanket.”
She also enjoyed visiting the beach, trying new restaurants and relaxing at the hotel, but her recipient was never far from her thoughts.
“I posted on Instagram about donating as it has special meaning to me,” she said. “I feel like it will be a big, life-changing moment if I get to meet my recipient. It seems a little unreal the idea that this bag of cells was going to save someone’s life, but seeing her will help me believe it!”
Ify has also been actively encouraging others to join the registry and pointing out the urgent need for minority donors to save the lives of patients who are waiting for matches. Unfortunately, the worldwide registry does not yet reflect the full diversity of humanity. As the best chance for a match is with someone of the same genetic heritage, many more donors are needed to ensure that every patient has a second chance at life.
“It is rare for people of African ancestry to find a match, and especially hard for people of mixed race,” said Ify. “Donating is a wonderful opportunity, this is more of a privilege than anything else. You just feel very good within yourself that you are doing something to help somebody, so I encourage everyone to get on the registry.”
Ify, 22, is a graduate of Wellesley College where she majored in biochemistry. She works at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and enjoys living in beautiful Somerville, Mass. In her free time she loves to read novels, watch tv, dance and hang out with her friends.