Robin Roberts, anchor of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” returned to work in February after an almost six-month absence for treatment of a rare disease.
In myelodysplastic syndrome, as it’s called, bone marrow doesn’t make enough healthy blood cells, according to the National Cancer Institute, and can be brought on by treatment for breast cancer, which Roberts faced in 2007.
In her most recent health challenge, Roberts first received chemotherapy to destroy any remaining abnormal blood cells, then received a transplant of bone marrow — her sister, New Orleans’ WWL-TV morning anchor Sally-Ann Roberts, was the donor.
“You feel bad for so long, you just want to feel normal. And now I do,” Robin Roberts told a writer for a People magazine article that appeared Feb. 25.
An active and supportive 1983 alumna and former basketball star at Southeastern Louisiana University, Roberts turned her experience to good by bringing attention to the Be the Match Foundation, reportedly the world’s largest registry of potential bone marrow donors.
Since Roberts revealed her diagnosis with the bone marrow disorder in June, more than 56,000 people have signed up to be bone marrow donors, according to the People magazine article.
Helping add to those numbers are SLU students. The university’s student body chose a new program, Swabbin’ 4 Robin, as its philanthropy this year.
In early March, approximately 300 SLU students registered as potential bone marrow donors, according to a news release from the university.
At athletic events this past fall and winter, mostly student volunteers, who had been trained by Be the Match, swabbed the inside of the cheeks of potential donors.
The samples were sent to Be the Match in sealed kits and medically and electronically entered into the organization’s data base.
“The response has been so great,” said Natalie Rowe, the Louisiana representative of Be the Match.
Rowe said she works with all the universities in the state, along with community organizations, to organize bone marrow donor drives through student organizations and has seen interest grow across the state as word of Swabbin’ 4 Robin grows.
SLU students and employees first reached out to Rowe with their idea for Swabbin’ 4 Robin, she said.
Rowe’s seen the number of donors who have registered from Louisiana triple over the last several months, she said.
Normally, Be the Match might have 100 new donors registered from Louisiana every month, Rowe said.
These days, that number is up in the 300 to 400 range, she said.
“We’re actually saving lives,” Rowe said.
The response in the state has led to another new Louisiana event, the first “Masquerading for a Match” fundraiser that will be held May 17 at Generations Hall in New Orleans.
Produced by Versatile Entertainment, the ball from 8 p.m. to midnight will raise funds to process and add new potential donors to the Be the Match registry.
For more information on the upcoming ball, visit http://www.masqueradingforamatch.com or call (985) 788-9461.
Wendy Lauderdale, vice president for University Advancement at SLU, said that she and other SLU employees traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., last year when Roberts was inducted into the Woman’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
On that weekend, Roberts shared with her friends from SLU the news of her diagnosis, before it was announced on “Good Morning America.”
“On the way back (to Louisiana), we (were asking), ‘What can we do to stand with her?’” Lauderdale said.
Eventually, employees, faculty and students got involved in working on behalf of Be the Match, which Robin often spoke about on national morning television, Lauderdale said.
An SLU professor coined the slogan, “Swabbin’ 4 Robin,” she said.
This spring, the university will provide information about Be the Match at softball, baseball, track and tennis events.
“Robin has been a wonderful alumna,” Lauderdale said.
She’s a “very inspirational woman. She’s always talking about her faith, her family and friends,” Lauderdale said.
Staff from ABC came to the SLU campus at one point to film a special “20/20” edition on Roberts’ experience that aired on Feb. 22.
“She always gives us so many kudos,” Lauderdale said of Roberts.
“Any negative thing that comes into her life, she tries to turn into a positive,” said Mike Rivault, SLU’s director of communications and marketing.
Lori Davis Jones, the Lady Lions basketball coach at SLU, said that in years past the girls’ basketball team played “pink games” in honor of Roberts, raising funds for breast cancer research when Roberts was facing that disease.
“When you’re playing for and have a connection with one of your own, it makes it so much more passionate,” Jones said.
“She’s incredibly gracious, always doing shoutouts for her alma mater,” Jones said of Roberts.