catching_fire

Recipients

When Gina Parker first partnered with Canadian Blood Services’ OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network in 2011, she had just one goal in mind — saving her brother’s life.

Fast-forward three years and Gina has used her position as a volunteer to help register more than 1,500 optimal stem cell donors at swabbing events, overturn a long-standing ban against blood donation and stem cell registration at Carleton University (in Ottawa, Ont.), and even determine her future career path in public health.

“There’s always a glimmer of hope in the back of my mind that maybe it could help [my brother],” says Gina, 24, of her work to promote stem cell registration. “But the most powerful motivation for why I’ve done this work is I’d really like every patient in need to be able find a matching donor. Helping more people find matches and being able to reduce the stress and anxiety felt when someone in your family has a cancer diagnosis is extremely powerful.”

A biochemistry student at Carleton, Gina has volunteered at on-campus events and stem cell drives in her community over the past several years. With each swabbing event she attends, she’s transported back to May 2011, when her younger brother, Jonny, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and told he’d need a stem cell transplant to survive.

“It was terrifying,” she says. “I thought we were going to lose him. I didn’t know what life was going to be like without him.”

While Gina was devastated to learn her stem cells were not a match for Jonny, her spirits lifted when OneMatch’s Jessica Stergiou encouraged her to volunteer with the organization in the hopes of finding an unrelated donor for her brother.

“That was the turning point for me,” she recalls. “Our whole family was moping around, we really felt bad for him and felt bad for ourselves.”

Throwing herself completely into the cause, she agreed to help at an upcoming swabbing event at Carleton, and was surprised to learn the university’s student association had an internal ban in place against Canadian Blood Services. The ban was implemented due to the organization’s policy that states that men who have had sex with men cannot donate blood within five years of their last sexual activity. Within the year, Gina had put together a motion to end the university’s ban.

“I was so invested in making a change,” says Gina, who believed for the sake of her brother and others in need that blood donation and stem cell registration should be fully supported on campus.

Unfortunately, the motion failed on Gina’s first attempt. But that didn’t stop her from trying again the following year — and running for a seat on the council herself. This time, the motion passed unanimously and she landed a role as V.P. of student issues.

“Gina’s efforts have directly increased the number of students donating blood at clinics held on site,” says Jessica. “And she’s been able to capture the attention of her fellow students and make the OneMatch personal for them because of her ability to effortlessly engage those around her. Gina’s message has spread like wildfire within the university community.”

Gina will continue to influence stem cell registration across the country as chair of the Get Swabbed National Liaison Committee, which looks to expand OneMatch’s presence at universities and colleges across Canada.

Fortunately, chemotherapy alone has put Jonny’s cancer into remission with no immediate need for a stem cell transplant. “The best outcome for me personally is the amount of positivity [my volunteerism has] generated for my brother,” she says. “We expected him to pass away very early on, and for some reason he has been spared. I don’t take for granted the time I get to spend with him.”

Photography by Oya Anzan

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