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Christina Merrill & the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation

Improving the quality of life for cancer and transplant patients

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When it comes to battling cancer, there's more to consider than just the treatment itself—there's quality of life, for instance, not just for patients but their families as well. It's something Christina Merrill recognized firsthand while working as a social worker at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "Each mom and dad was struggling leaving their child each morning to go to work as their child cried for their mom or dad to not leave them during their chemotherapy treatments or transplant," she recalls. "These parents had to keep working to pay rent, keep the electricity on, pay for medication or home care supplies." Life, after all, doesn't stop when disease takes over.

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Merrill, our #VBGivesBack woman of the month, decided to do something about it.

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In 1992, she founded the Bone Marrow Foundation—now called the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation—which provides financial assistance, referrals and resources, educational information and emotional support programs to cancer and transplant patients and their loved ones. Imagine being told the necessary treatment center is in another state… and you don't have the funds to pay for an extended stay. Enter BMCF’s Airbnb Open Homes Medical Stays Program, which offers free, temporary housing to those in need.

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It's just one of the many ways the nonprofit can change—and save—lives. The impact BMCF has made is immeasurable. These families are already facing horrible news and a difficult road ahead; BMCF allows them to focus on what matters. No numbers or stats can speak as loudly as setting their minds at ease during such an emotional time.

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Here, we talk to Merrill about the organization and its influence. The stories she tells are both heartbreaking and hopeful, and we couldn't be prouder to support her cause as we close out 2019.

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Q&A

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Tell us about the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation
Founded in 1992, the organization is dedicated to improving the quality of life for cancer and transplant patients and their families by providing vital financial assistance, comprehensive resources, educational information, physician referrals, and emotional support programs. For the past 27 years, the Foundation has connected patients and their families with the services they need—from diagnosis through survivorship—to make effective decisions about treatment and its aftermath. All of our programs and services are offered to patients and their families free of charge.

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What was the inspiration behind it?
While attending Columbia University School of Social Work, I interned at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in pediatrics, helping children and their parents. Leaving work at the end of each day was hard for me as these families were so needy. Each mom and dad was struggling leaving their child each morning to go to work as their child cried for their mom or dad to not leave them during their chemotherapy treatments or transplant. These parents had to keep working to pay rent, keep the electricity on, pay for medication or home-care supplies. These families also needed housing near the hospital instead of driving hours to come back with their child for follow-up appointments and treatment. Many of these families couldn’t afford private transportation, which was also a problem as their child had compromised immune systems and couldn’t use public transportation. I was determined to help these families through their darkest hours. These hands-on experiences changed my life, and I knew I wanted to provide patients and their families the necessary support to navigate their cancer journey. My passion for patient support and advocacy lead to founding the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation.

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How did you get your start?
I wrote a mission statement and strategic plan that mirrored the need I saw while working in the hospital system with children, adults and family members. I shared my plan with a few doctors and nurses for ideas. I also had the support and mentoring from the best men I knew: my dad, Joe Bushkin, and my father-in-law, David Mahoney. My father was a jazz pianist and composer who worked with all the greats and wrote hit songs for Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, just to name a few. My dad performed at our first fundraiser, which we held in NYC at the Copacabana! We raised a couple hundred thousand that night and that got us started! And my father-in-law was an incredible businessman and philanthropist and he helpedd me with my strategic plan for the organization. It was very much a family affair; my entire family supported my work and the development of the organization.
Since then, our patient programs have grown tremendously and so has our fundraising during the past 27 years! Coming up this month, we are having our 20th anniversary for the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. In addition to this tradition, we hold three student dances each fall and winter and a shopping event, so it’s a very busy time for us. Fall Ball, Thanksgiving Holiday Dance and Gold and Silver Ball—these student dances have been really successful. At the Fall Ball this past October, a father made a special effort to come and find me. He wanted me to meet his little girl, who had been treated for Hodgkin's disease just a few years ago. And now she was well enough to attend a fun event with many other seventh- and eighth-grade students. It was really sweet and heartwarming to make this connection, and it was a touching reminder that while these dances are fun for the students, they’re more than just parties—they enable us to reach even more patients in need because of the funds we raise each year.
Our events aren’t limited to these winter months, though! We alternate each spring between a Gala and a Luncheon, two events that have become part of our identity. Thanks to all of these wonderful fundraising events, we are able to provide over two million in housing and patient assistance. Our fundraising efforts are truly instrumental to our mission and patient care.

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What's the reach of the foundation?
We've helped approximately 125,000 families in the United States since we launched in 1992. While we are a national organization, in 2019, we received the most requests from cancer centers in Tampa, Atlanta, Boston, Massachusetts; New York, Houston, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Miami, Charleston, and Nashville. We will grant over two million in housing and financial assistance to pediatric and adult patients this year.

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Could you tell us about some of the programs?
We offer a range of programs that provide financial, educational or emotional support to patients and families through every step of the treatment process and beyond. Some of our most successful programs are below.

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Lifeline Fund: A Patient Financial Assistance Program
Our flagship program, The Lifeline Fund, provides financial support to individuals who are preparing for and undergoing a bone-marrow, stem-cell, or cord-blood transplant. Patients often lack the financial resources necessary to afford not only life-saving treatment, but also certain overlooked living and ancillary expenses that accompany treatment—such as donor searches, compatibility testing, bone-marrow harvesting, medications, home and child-care services, medical equipment, transportation, cord-blood banking, housing, and many more. Health insurance often does not cover these vital support services, and many patients cannot afford them on their own.

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Airbnb Open Homes Medical Stays
Our newest program, a partnership with Airbnb, offers free, temporary housing for cancer and transplant patients and their caregivers. Many communities throughout the country—particularly those in rural or isolated areas—lack the facilities, resources and expertise needed to manage the complexity of cancer treatment. Because of this, many patients have no choice but to travel to receive the best cancer treatment and this unforeseen need can be a tremendous hardship. Patients often have difficulty finding affordable housing on top of continuing to cover expenses at home like rent and mortgage, and families are often forced to separate at a time when they need each other the most. Since the program was launched earlier this year, BMCF has provided more than 3,700 nights of free temporary accommodation to 580 patients and their caregivers.

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Carelines
Carelines provides crowdfunding, journaling and a help calendar for anyone with a cancer diagnosis or receiving a bone-marrow, stem-cell or cord-blood transplant. Through Carelines, patients can reach out to family, friends and social networks for financial support, share updates, photos, and videos, keep track of appointments and receive help from family and community members for day-to-day tasks.

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Patient Navigators
BMCF-skilled patient navigators guide anyone faced with a cancer diagnosis—or preparing for or undergoing a bone-marrow or stem-cell transplant—through the healthcare system to alleviate any barriers they may face during their treatment. In particular, patient navigators offer support to patients and families during times of uncertainty by identifying and making referrals for financial assistance programs, housing, treatment centers and medical specialists.

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A lightbulb went off in my head. I knew I needed to offer our programs for anyone with cancer.

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Any personal stories of the nonprofit's impact?
There are so many. We had a boy named Joshua we helped this year, who had gone into the ICU and was dying. His mother, brother and grandmother hadn't seen him all summer because they lived in Jamaica. The boy’s father desperately wanted to reunite them before their son died. They called us and, within hours, we had plane tickets for them and had arranged free temporary home near the hospital. It’s heartbreaking that the little boy passed away and we were so relieved to be able to help his family be with him during his last days.
I’ll let two other patients share their stories, in their own words here:
Fangzhou, a patient who received free temporary housing from the BMCF’s Airbnb Open Homes Medical Stays Program in New York: “I was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma. The doctor in Kentucky recommended radical amputation. As a result, we went to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for a second opinion and stayed there for surgery to keep my leg. My husband and my mother took turns taking care of me and needed a place to stay; however, it is very expensive in New York. My husband and I are both students without income. We couldn’t afford such a big expense. Thanks to BMCF, we were able to get help with this accommodation during our difficult time and get through the cancer journey with less stress. We are very grateful for this organization and the program.”
Sarah, who was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer when 14 weeks pregnant with her third child: “My little town doesn’t offer cancer treatment so every time I have a medical appointment, I have to drive four hours one way. Radiation has such a demanding schedule and we had no choice but to move to Salt Lake City for my treatment. We are a single-income family facing not only medical bills from cancer treatment, but also medical bills from having the baby. My case worker pointed me in the direction of the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation’s Open Homes program, and a week before my treatment was to start we were approved! It was just the little things that made it so nice for me, like being two miles from treatment, having space for my kids and their needs, a washer and dryer and a place to call home for that time! It took a lot of stress away from an already stressful situation. I don’t know what we would have done if it wasn’t for this program… it was truly a blessing!"

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What led to the name change from the Bone Marrow Foundation to the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation?
My children's squash coach came down with pancreatic cancer about three years ago. My boys love him, I love him—he is a part of our family. When he got sick, I knew we needed to do something quickly to get him into treatment. We started a Carelines fund and, within 72 hours, raised over $300,000 from the community to help with his treatment. He was the first person we helped who didn't have a disease that's treated by a bone-marrow or stem-cell transplant. A lightbulb went off in my head. I knew I needed to offer our programs for anyone with cancer.

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For any families in need who are reading—could you share some key resources online?
Our other programs are so helpful for children, adults, family members and caregivers. Here are links to our website: Airbnb Open Homes Medical Stays, Carelines, Ask the Expert, Supportline, Patient Navigator, Clinical Care Counseling, Scholarship Grants and Lifeline Fund.

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