Villanova football coach Talley triggers rise in bone-marrow donors

Since 1991, Villanova coach Andy Talley has been involved with the program to test for potential bone-marrow donors.
Since 1991, Villanova coach Andy Talley has been involved with the program to test for potential bone-marrow donors. (SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff photographer)
Posted: June 16, 2011

IT STARTED BY chance. One morning 2 decades ago, Villanova football coach Andy Talley was shaving and happened to turn on the radio. Who could have known?

"I'm listening to one of those medical talk shows, and an oncologist comes on and he's talking about bone-marrow transplants," Talley remembered. "And he says, 'We have no donors. People by the thousands are dying of blood-related cancer diseases, and we just don't have any donors.' It wasn't on my radar at all. All of a sudden I had a lightbulb moment.

"It was like, 'What?' I have 90 healthy players. I could do something about this. So I called the HLA Registry [national bone-marrow registry] . . . out of the blue. There was no Internet then. I said this is who I am and told them I wanted to get involved. I'd like to get our players tested, and maybe we could encourage other people around here to do the same . . . It was run by a guy named Dr. [Elie] Katz, who has since passed away. He said sure, we'll support you. I had nothing, no money. At the time it was like $60 a test. Now it's $100. They went out and raised the money, so we could get 200 people tested. That was our first one, in 1991."

This past year, thanks to his efforts locally and with 33 other programs, the total was more than 8,600. The initiative, conducted in conjunction with the Minnesota-based National Marrow Donor Program, is called "Get in the Game, Save a Life." Talley has even started his own nonprofit foundation, which just raised $50,000 at its inaugural "big bash" on campus.

The NMDP began connecting patients with unrelated donors in 1987, with a registry of 10,000. By 2010, Be The Match Registry, a worldwide organization operated by the NMDP, had nearly 9 million potential donors. Since 1987, there have been more than 43,000 transplants coordinated through NMDP and it is facilitating about 5,000 transplants a year. Each year, about 10,000 patients are diagnosed as needing a transplant. The 1-year survival rate for unrelated transplants has increased over the years. In 2008, it was 54 percent; it was 42.2 percent in 2003. In addition to leukemia, there are more than 70 blood-related diseases where patients can be helped by transplants, including sickle-cell disease and lymphoma.

The cause gained national legs in 2009 when Villanova football and baseball standout Matt Szczur became a match for a young girl suffering from leukemia. For a while, there was a chance he could miss the FCS national-championship game if the harvesting procedure had to be scheduled for the same week. As it turned out there was no conflict, the Wildcats won their first title and Szczur was named Most Outstanding Player. Months later he donated his marrow. So far, his story has had a happy ending. There have been other less-publicized matches with Main Line connections, direct or otherwise.

"I'm a big believer that one man can make a difference," Talley said. "Look at the Jimmy V thing, or Coaches vs. Cancer.

"If everyone were tested, the chances of finding somebody would be awesome. The two biggest problems are cost and lack of education. It takes some explaining. The first thing they think is, 'Geez, bone marrow sounds nasty.' A lot of people, especially in the inner city, have never heard of it. And ironically they're the ones who suffer the most from blood diseases. In a lot of instances you really have to convince people that it's a worthwhile thing to do."

Catherine Scott, a spokeswoman for the NMDP, said the odds of finding a match ranges from about 60 to 93 percent, depending on race and ethnicity.

To become registered in the donor pool, a person has to submit to a cheek swab and 15-minute profile of their medical history. If they should make it to the donor stage of the process, that procedure involves going to a hospital and being hooked up to a harvesting machine for several hours. Yet the discomfort level has been described as minimally evasive, particularly when weighed against what's at stake.

Villanova junior Greg Lattanzi is from suburban Atlanta and volunteers on campus as an EMT with an ambulance crew. He was tested and became a donor.

"This is just one more thing I could do to try and help someone else out," Lattanzi said. "So I figured why not? That's always the way I was taught.

"But I totally was not expecting to get called, especially as soon as I did . . . I was excited about the chance to help someone. I was definitely committed to it, from the time I signed up. I didn't care what I had to do.

"The only thing they told me is that it was a 15-year-old girl who had an aggressive form of leukemia."

Seventy-five percent of the donors go through what Szczur did, which is similar to a blood transfusion. Lattanzi had to go through the procedure where they actually take the marrow from your hip.

"The last part [the surgery] was the easiest," he said. "I stayed at a hotel near the facility [Hahnemann University Hospital] the night before. It was paid for. It was neat, because I heard that's where they did the first bone-marrow tranplants. I got up around 6:30, basically checked in. They made sure everything was good as far as my health signs.

"They want you to feel fully comfortable. They just take you in to pre-op and start the IV. The nurses were great. They were cracking jokes, having fun. They put me under, and the next thing I know it was over. They took over a liter of my bone marrow. They had two doctors, with two different needles, taking it from both sides of my hip simultaneously.

"Afterward, I was in no pain. The best way to describe it is, I was a little stiff. But nothing that kept me from doing anything. I was back to being an EMT in 4 days. They gave me an update about the girl at the 3-month mark, and after 6 months. The first one, they said she was actually doing better than expected. She was going home for the first time in several months. And [at the 6-month mark] they told me she was doing spectacular. She just celebrated her 16th birthday. It was so rewarding to hear all that."

Talley said he received an email from a Villanova graduate describing how she was a donor: "She goes: 'I was in the Class of '94, and was among the first student-athletes to sign up for the bone-marrow program. I was an All-America swimmer, who earned a master's degree and Ph.D. in communications. I currently work at Pace University in New York. I was contacted about 2 years ago because I showed up as a match. I underwent surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital to donate my marrow to an anonymous recipient who was suffering from leukemia. [It] really wasn't that bad. The recovery was quick and I was honored to have the opportunity to help someone so sick. I just wanted to share my story with you. Michelle Pulaski Behling.' So she was part of the first testing that we had. When you hear something like that . . .

"There was really no vision. The second year, we got some local schools involved. But that sort of ran out of steam. Then it really took off about 4 years ago, when Jeanes Hospital [in Philadelphia] called me. They were celebrating their 1,000th bone-marrow transplant, they'd heard what we did and wanted to know if we'd partner with them. They wanted to test 1,000 people. I said, 'Are you kidding? We've tested 200, 250. That's a lot.' So I went to Al [Bagnoli] at Penn, Bill Zwann at West Chester. It became a community thing. I think we ended up testing like 2,500 people. They went, 'Oh my God, this is wonderful.'

"That's when the Be The Match foundation contacted us and asked if we'd work with them. They said they'd fund us, which is the magic word. They wanted to test 5,000 people. That's when I coined the slogan with them. So I contacted people, got commitments. No one turned me down. We just hit it out of the box."

Talley is the catalyst. It's mainly about connections. San Jose State is involved because a former assistant at Bucknell got a job out there. Bowling Green is part of the equation because former Villanova coordinator Dave Clawson became its head coach. And so on. When Al Golden went to Miami from Temple, he got 250 people to test this spring, Talley said.

"It's hard to get to the big guys, unless you have a contact," Talley said. "The trainer from the University of Texas got in touch with me. He said, 'I heard you do this, but the coaching staff's a little concerned about what happens if someone's called during the season.' Well, we know what has to be done. But if you're at Texas and you lose your stud whatever, that's not so good. While some alumni might understand, I'm not sure everyone will. You want everyone to embrace it, but that kind of stuff holds you back. That and funding."

Talley has been at Villanova since the program was restored at the Division I-AA level in 1985 following a 5-year hiatus. He might even get to coach in the Big East before he calls it a career. So it has been his baby. He's the face. This calling has become every bit his baby. So what does a football lifer get out of that?

"Well, you're only in the sun for a certain period of time in your life," Talley said. "I've been put in a position right now where I can get people to listen, because they've heard of us and what we're doing. I have to use whatever identity I have to do good. The bone-marrow thing is still mystifying to a lot of people. It's something I latched onto. We've been able to help people, through football. It's not just Villanova. Other schools have their Matt Szczurs.

"If there is a heaven, and if I get to the gates and St. Peter is actually sitting there, I hope he's going to go, 'All right, you helped save a few lives, come on over. We're going to let some of that other stuff slide.' We've been able to capture the moment, the karma, the cosmos, all of that. We got it going pretty good."

And he wants that to continue, even when he's no longer spearheading the fight.

"This is one of those missions," Talley said. "As soon as someone tells us we can't go further with it, let's keep it where it is, I have to do something. You have to keep pushing. It's like getting a tiger by the tail. But it's kind of a one-horse show. And I worry about that. I got a voice mail 3 days ago from a guy at Oregon State, and I haven't got back to him yet. Why is that? I should be jumping on that. But I have other things going on here that need to be taken care of . . . I mean, Oregon State doesn't know Villanova from Adam. But they know we do this. They read it somewhere. It's gathered some momentum. I have to ride that. Yet at times I'm like 3 days behind. That's where I feel I'm not doing enough. We just tested 8,600 people. But we can do more, whatever that is. We've got to figure it out. That's where the passion comes in . . .

"I was given a gift, and I passed it on. And I hope there will be others who will accept the gift and pass it on. That, to me, is what it should be about. I'm getting to the point now where: How long am I going to be there? I won't be done until I can't really breathe anymore. We've built something. I think it's good, but it's not the end. Like I always say: 'Next.' " *

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