In 2015, three twenty-something women traveled to all 50 states to raise awareness about blood cancer and blood diseases and to register potential bone marrow donors.
They also happened to have an incredible adventure. Sisters Sam and Alex Kimura, along with their best friend Taylor Shorten, left their hometown of Louisville, KY on January 20th, 2015 and began a yearlong journey around the United States.
The girls started an organization called Sharing America’s Marrow, or SAM in honor of Sam, who has been fighting aplastic anemia since 2010.
Because Sam doesn’t have a matching donor for the bone marrow transplant she needs to cure her bone marrow failure disease, and because they wanted to help find matches for any patients needing transplants, the SAM team decided to take their cause on the road. They began their journey by heading South from Kentucky, trying to avoid the harshest of weather.
They focused on setting up their registration tables mainly on college campuses because young people are the ideal donors- the younger you are, the healthier your bone marrow and stem cells are.
The first week of their trip was an exhausting one, hosting nine events and signing up 1,000 potential donors in just the first seven days. As hard as they had prepared in the months leading up to the trip, they had no idea just how hard it would be to register donors during the day, work for hours into the night answer emails, and do all of that while traveling and moving to a new city almost every single day.
The first few weeks were difficult as they tried to figure out a system, but slowly, life on the road became the norm: eat the free hotel breakfast, drive to a college campus, set up a table, register donors, grab some food to go, drive to the next city, grab your bag of clothes and toiletries for the night, check into the hotel, post on social media, answer emails, return phone calls, decide who gets to sleep in their own bed that night and who has to share, sleep for a few hours, and then do it all again.
The three girls had their hands full with traveling and running their nonprofit organization, but their biggest challenge was trying to change people’s minds about bone marrow and stem cell donation. Because the donation process has a negative stigma because of the way it was collected in the past, and because of movies and TV shows like My Sister’s Keeper, 7 Pounds, House, and Grey’s Anatomy inaccurately portraying the bone marrow donation process, most people they talked to were terrified to hear the words “bone marrow.”
It was hard to get people to even stop to listen to the facts: that bone marrow donation is not like it used to be, that it is now done under general anesthesia so that the donor feels no pain during the procedure, that you might have some soreness in the days following the procedure but that people say they would do it again in a heartbeat because they saved someone’s life, and that 80% of donors just give blood stem cells which is like donating platelets or plasma.
It was hard to know what was more damaging- eating food from gas stations almost every day, or being told “no” or just being ignored hundreds of times a day at the registration events. But the SAM team tried to focus on the people that were saying yes and made it a priority to also make sure they were having fun.
They went to as many national parks as they could, stopped at the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, ate dinner at the oldest restaurant in Connecticut, took selfies at Niagra Falls, and tried to check off as many bucket list items as possible as they made their counter-clockwise loop around the country.
It wasn’t always pretty- the inside of their van was constantly a mess, tears were shed, silent treatments were given, and weight from all the fast food was gained. But Sam, Alex, and Taylor formed an incredible bond between them, saw amazing parts of America they never thought they would see, and told their story on the Steve Harvey Show, CBS Evening News, CNN, and in Cosmo Magazine.
Most importantly, they registered over 23,000 people to the bone marrow donor registry and found over 250 potential matches for patients fighting blood cancer and blood diseases.
It was a long journey, but it was all worth it knowing that they were giving people hope and a second chance at life that wouldn’t have had it if the SAM team hadn’t climbed in that van and hit the road. 50 states, 160 cities, 24,055 miles in one year, and enough memories to last a lifetime.