Matched for Life

Alumna deploys her skill and experience to improve health disparities among people of color

As an executive at the national marrow donor registry Be The Match, Erica Jensen is working to Be the Changemaker.

There is a lot riding on the Regis alumna’s effort: the more successful she is, the more lives potentially can be saved.

As senior vice president for marketing, donor registry growth and development for the Be The Match®, her mission is not just drawing more donors to the registry, but convincing many more potential donors of color to sign up as well.

Operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, Be The Match maintains what it calls the world’s most diverse registry of willing bone marrow donors. Bone marrow donations can be effective treatment for a variety of life-threatening conditions, including leukemia, lymphoma and other blood cancers, as well as sickle cell disease. When patients do not have suitable donors in their immediate families, the Be The Match registry can link them with potential donors anywhere.

Jensen’s goal of recruiting donors of color is an ambitious one. “Over five years, we want to double the amount of ethnically diverse patients we are able to match,” she said. Currently, Be The Match estimates that fewer than 20 percent of its registry of potential donors are people of color. Because of characteristics that determine a match, a larger pool of donors in a particular racial or ethnic group increases the chances of finding a match for a patient of that same group.

To achieve her growth targets, Jensen and her organization will have to overcome decades of skepticism and distrust of the medical establishment — much of it well-deserved — among communities of color.

The plan is to do that by raising the organization’s profile — “if you know us [now], it’s probably because you’ve been impacted by us,” Jensen said — through marketing and social media, and resuming, post-pandemic, its presence on college campuses.

But she recognizes that with communities of color, something more personal and persuasive is needed. “We have to be there in the community,” she said. “Being part of the community and sharing stories of the impact on our patients and of how their lives could be saved if they have a donor.”

The work doesn’t stop once potential donors are on the registry, Jensen said. “The secondary challenge is to get people . . . committed, get them inspired and engaged, so when we call them, they say yes.” In other words, donors exactly like Eboni Nash.

As a graduate student at Harvard University, she did things. She volunteered, raised awareness, fought for social justice causes, worked for good. Then she graduated, with a master’s degree in liberation theology, left the humming, active Cambridge, Mass. campus and came home to tiny Eads, Colo., population 800. During the pandemic.

“I went from doing all these things to doing nothing,” Nash said. “I felt helpless. I felt useless. So I went on my computer and Googled virtual volunteer opportunities. The second thing that popped up was Be The Match,” she said.

Reading about the organization convinced her to join the donor registry. She got the Be The Match kit in the mail, sent in her swab, “and then just forgot about it.”

Then, last fall, Nash was living in Denver, getting settled in a new job when she got a call. She was a match — a near perfect match, it turned out — with a very sick 13-year-old girl. She didn’t hesitate for a moment.

After a physical, blood tests, COVID tests and pregnancy tests, Nash donated her marrow on September 8, 2021.

She was sore for a couple days, and dizzy – the latter the result of pretty much ignoring the medical team’s instructions to drink plenty of water, Nash admitted. Overall, she was back to normal in a few days. Although the registry contains potential donors from 18 to 60, Nash’s age — 25 — made her an ideal donor. Research shows that younger donors’ cells regenerate more quickly and they experience fewer side effects, Jensen said. Nash's ethnic background — Black and Native American — means that little girl is especially fortunate that a donor was found.

In the weeks before her donation, Nash heard some comments that might explain why. “I do remember a few people of color saying, ‘are you sure that’s good idea? They might take more than they say’. I told them this is a credible organization. I did my research. And I had full agency within my procedure. You aren’t forced into anything. They educate you on the process, and they checked with me two or three times — ‘are you sure you want to do this?’ Even one more time as they wheeled me back, they said, ‘are you sure you want to do this?’”

Now, Nash has two items on her to-do list: She’d like to meet the girl whose life she likely saved (Be The Match rules require a year between a donation and meeting.) And she wants to get 4,000 people added to the registry by year’s end. A Tik Tok video she made in the hospital jump-started that effort, thanks to its 800,000 likes. “I tell people it’s a little bit of pain for a lifesaving thing,” she said.

Unlike Nash, Jensen didn’t go looking for a good cause. In fact, when a headhunter first called, it took a bit of persuading for her trade her globe-trotting corporate life for Be The Match. “I had this stereotype of nonprofits working hard, having great people, but not having a strategic plan.”

But a little persistence on the headhunter’s part, and a little digging on Jensen’s, shattered her preconceived notions, at least where Be The Match is concerned. “They have a very clear path and were building operational strategic initiatives,” Jensen said.

She was sold. “As a Black African American marketing professional knowing I could make a difference in overcoming what is one of the largest disparities in modern health care, how do you say no?”

And that’s how she made the transition as she put it, from making money to saving lives. “Our matrix is lives. That is very different from the corporate world, which is looking at driving profit.”

When Jensen enrolled in the Regis MBA program, she was working full-time at Qwest Communications in Denver and wanted to augment her communications degree from Northwestern University with business skills.

Regis’ appeal included flexible schedules and, “I loved the focus on ethics,” she said.

After earning her MBA at Regis, Jensen spent nearly two decades charging up the corporate ladder, first at Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., then as senior marketing manager for global marketing at General Mills, which is based in Minneapolis where Jensen lives with her husband and two children.

Even at General Mills, Jensen had her eye on more than profits. One of the achievements there that she is most proud of is the 2014 creation of The Firefly Sisterhood. The Minnesota-based non-profit, which resulted from Jensen’s marketing work with the General Mills brand Yoplait yogurt, connects volunteer breast cancer survivors with women experiencing the disease.

Yoplait, a favorite among women, had a longtime partnership with breast cancer research organizations. But research can take years to come to fruition; the company wanted a philanthropic project that would produce more immediate results.

“We did focus groups with survivors, and they told us they felt alone in their journey,” Jensen said. Doctors, nurses, friends and family were all helpful in their role. But despite their best intentions, those people hadn’t experienced a breast cancer diagnosis. “[The women] told us they wished they had a support network” of other women who had been through it.

Firefly Sisterhood matches recently diagnosed women with survivors they have something more in common with — age, life experience, type of cancer — than just a devastating diagnosis. The survivors become a lifeline, mentor, and someone the women in treatment can go to with questions like where to buy the best wigs, or what wardrobe changes they might have to make.

Jensen finds satisfaction in the difference the group is making. “Whenever I have attended Firefly gatherings and been able to see the impact it has, it is just a tremendous feeling to be able, within a corporate job, to do something with meaning and to impact so many lives.”

In that respect her job description hasn’t changed all that much. She still gets to impact lives for the better. “My overall vision is equal outcome for everyone, regardless of their ethnic background or age or income.”

With Jensen’s drive and skill, and a little help from people like Nash, that vision just might become reality.

So how exactly do they match up?

A bone marrow donor match depends on proteins found on cells called human leukocyte antigen (HLA) markers. The body uses HLA markers to recognize its own cells and to protect itself from invaders like viruses. Race and ethnicity impact HLA markers, which means matches are more likely among people of the same race or ethnicity.

Bone Marrow Donation by the Numbers

4,992 – Number of bone marrow transplants performed in the United States in 2018
70% – Percentage of patients who have no suitable donor match in their immediate family
77% – Odds of a white person finding a donor match through a registry
46% – Odds of a Hispanic or Latino person finding a donor match through a registry
29% – Odds of a Black person finding a donor match through a registry
17% – Percentage of ethnically-diverse donors in the Be The Match Registry
62% – Five-year survival rate for acute myeloid leukemia patients who receive a bone marrow transplant from a donor