Three MCPHS students at the Stem Cell Donor Registry event.
Community | 11/15/2023

Combining Forces to Save Lives: Dozens from MCPHS Join Stem Cell Donor Registry

By Jennifer Persons

Three MCPHS students at the Stem Cell Donor Registry event.

Two student groups on the Worcester campus organized the biggest Be The Match event ever held at MCPHS.

More than 70 members of the MCPHS Community recently joined the national registry for blood stem cell donations. That’s more than 70 individuals who could change the lives of people with life-threatening blood disorders.

“It’s a testament to how people at this University are willing to educate themselves and do something right now to help others,” said Helen Tautkus, MSOT ’24.

Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) in Worcester has hosted other Be The Match events. But this fall, students and faculty set out to make the event bigger than ever. The Student Association of the American Academy of Physician Assistants (SAAAPA) and the Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA) worked together to throw the most successful Be The Match event to date at MCPHS.

It started with a presentation from a Be The Match representative, breaking down what it means to be a stem cell donor. Then, they invited attendees to collect their genetic samples—a cheek swab—and submit them to join the registry.

“This year, we wanted to take it to the next level and focus on education and awareness,” said Sam Tepper, MPAS ’24. “Spreading the word about Be The Match and exactly what it is really does make a difference in people’s lives.”

By the end of the day, 73 attendees had completed the swab, becoming potential donors. Fifteen more took registry kits home to their families and friends.

Five MCPHS students hold Be The Match registration kits, smiling for the camera

“My clinical background is in stem cell transplantation, so this is near and dear to my heart,” said Laura Petrillo-Deluca, MPAS, PA-C, Assistant Professor of Physician Assistant Studies. “I would go through the frustration with patients when we couldn’t find matches for them, so it was nice to see all the people who registered because I know how much it will impact patients.”

Petrillo-Deluca started the relationship between Be The Match and MCPHS in 2017. She and the SAAAPA organized two tabling events in Worcester before the pandemic. In 2021, when they brought the event back, they drew the attention of one of her colleagues in the School of Occupational Therapy.

“I remember seeing the table and thinking how meaningful it was,” said Michelle Dowling, OTD, OTR/L, CHT, CLVT, Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy. “Then, my son, who had joined the registry when he was in college, was called upon and became a donor for someone. I wanted to see if we could combine forces and propel us to something bigger.”

And they did. Dr. Dowling, Tautkus, and SOTA teamed up with Petrillo-Deluca, Tepper, and SAAPA to throw an event that drew so much interest, that there was standing-room-only space inside the Lincoln Ballroom. The presentation from Dr. Dowling’s son about his experience as a donor put the event over the top.

“My son helped demystify the donor experience, showing how his fortitude could help save a person’s life,” she said. “His story helped students not be afraid to swab.” Petrillo-Deluca’s experience also helped attendees better understand what they were signing up for.

“Ninety percent of the time, stem cell transplantation is done through the blood,” she explained. “That means the donor receives injections to mobilize their stem cells from their bone marrow into the bloodstream. Then, they donate their blood, and we collect the cells.”

With 73 new registrations collected in one day, this was the biggest Be The Match event ever held at MCPHS.

“That’s potentially 73 lives changed,” Tautkus said. “That’s a big deal.”

“We didn’t expect it to be as big as it was,” Tepper said. “It shows how the young people in medicine want to help our patients.”

The group has big plans for future Be The Match events, expanding to include other fields and campuses.

“This event took off, and we’d love to see it grow,” Petrillo-Deluca said. “In the future, having a patient who’s received a transplant share their story would be really powerful.”

“It was the most inspiring opportunity thus far in my career,” Dr. Dowling said. “It has energized me to do even more.”