On November 4th of this year, people cheered on over 50,000 runners from around the world as they attempted to complete the 48th annual New York City Marathon. For those of us in the blood cancer industry, it was hard not to draw parallels between the runners’ race against time and the race that many of our patients are in as they try to find a lifesaving bone marrow donor match.
In the time it takes the average marathon runner to cross the finish line, 93 Americans will be diagnosed with a blood cancer, and 27 patients will lose their fight. That’s why one of the most inspiring stories to come from the marathon this year involved a runner who is not only intimately aware of these numbers but has played a part in changing the odds for at least one patient in need.
Burcu Mirza’s decision to run her first ever marathon was about more than just proving something to herself — it was a way she could share her life changing experience with the world and dispel the myths and misconceptions that surround bone-marrow donation.
Inspired to register by the cancer diagnosis of a close friend’s daughter in 2011, she eventually got the call that she was a match and donated her marrow in 2013. Mirza was surprised that, despite her overwhelmingly positive experience, whenever she shared her story people still seemed hesitant to join the cause due to the fear of the physical effect donation might have on them. Though her goal on race day was merely to finish the race, her larger hope was to act as a role model to inspire others to become donors themselves and disprove the notion that marrow donors suffer any long-lasting side effects.
“Many people are scared that they will lose their health if they donate [their bone marrow],” Mirza explains. “As a donor, if I can run my first marathon at age 42, I will be able to show that bone-marrow donors do not necessarily lose their health or strength. I hope to set an example and help people make informed decisions if they are matched.”
Little did she know, her generosity and persistent advocacy inspired the organization she donated through and was now running to raise funds in support of. They prepared their own surprise for Mirza. Her recipient, Cliff Sherrill, who Mirza had been speaking with for four years despite not being able to physically meet, was waiting for her at the finish line along with his family.
A long-awaited meeting
In 2013, Cliff Sherrill was teaching and writing when a routine doctor’s visit turned his world upside down. He had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and told he would need a bone marrow-transplant to survive. Within a matter of weeks, he and his wife closed up their house, moved into temporary living closer to the hospital and were waiting to hear whether there was a matching donor who could give Sherrill a second chance.
Luckily for him, Mirza had joined the registry in 2011 and was immediately found to be a perfect match for Sherrill. She donated to him months after his initial diagnosis, and a year later, the two exchanged contact information. They began to get to know each other through letters and phone calls. For four years, the two shared family updates, pictures of holidays, personalized gifts and hopes of one day being able to meet to share a long-awaited hug.
Sherrill and his family were flown into New York days before the marathon and stood at the finish line waiting for the woman who truly made this moment possible. As they waited to meet her, they talked about all that Mirza had given Sherrill: A chance to watch his daughter get married, a chance to celebrate another wedding anniversary with his wife and a chance to simply be here, alive.
Sherrill stared at the finish line and wondered aloud, “What can you say to the person who saved your life?” Moments later, he discovered that sometimes the warmth of a hug and a few tears can say more than words.