Volunteer spirit on display

Despite severe thunderstorm warnings throughout the day and a downpour just before the event was scheduled to end, hundreds of people – including Lady Vol athletes from an assortment of teams – showed up at a Knoxville church over the weekend to support the drive to find a bone marrow match for a 10-year-old girl.

Anna Martin, the young daughter of Kristen Martin, made a brief appearance at Hardin Valley Church of Christ in West Knox County, to offer her thanks for those who are trying to help.

"It's amazing," Anna said when asked about the turnout of people who wanted to enter submissions via swabs of cheek cells for a bone marrow match. "I was here for a few minutes and then I went home with my friends."

Anna, who is battling Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), a cancer of the bone marrow, wore a mask to protect her from infection but was able to briefly take it off for a media photo and interview. She left on her Goofy hat with oversized ears.

With the mask discarded while talking in an office at the church, while her sister and friends tried to peek around the corner and watch, Anna showed a beautiful smile with high spirits to match.

Anna's mother is a licensed clinical social worker and for the past 10 years has been the coordinator of the University of Tennessee Lady Vol Team ENHANCE (Enhancing Nutrition, Health, Athletic Performance, Networking, Community and Education) program. Some of Kristen Martin's duties include helping Lady Vols with consultations, seminars and clinical assessments with regard to nutrition, body composition, eating disorders and mental health and the effect on athletic performance and overall physical and mental health.

Despite the bone marrow drive being held in mid-June when a lot of students are away from campus, dozens of Lady Vol athletes in the area and those attending summer school turned out Saturday in support of the Martin family. Vol athletes, including some members of the basketball team, also came to the church.

The Martins are members of the Hardin Valley church, which helped to organize the drive, along with family friend Hollie Brooks, in conjunction with the Cooperative Appalachian Marrow Program (CAMP). Potential donors had to be 60 years old or younger, in good physical health and not have undergone treatment for an assortment of disorders, including heart conditions, severe bronchial issues, autoimmune disorders and other maladies.

Despite the restrictions, at least 500 people were able to submit swabs that will be sent to the Be The Match Registry® to enter a database and be available for patients around the world as they search for a match. (Update: The final tally was 657 submissions for the registry.)

The event began at 10 a.m. and was scheduled to end at 3 p.m., but people were still filing into the church in the afternoon and filling out forms, and organizers said the drive would not end until everyone had been processed. Those who submitted samples also signed a large placard for Anna and were given a chocolate candy "kiss" that Anna asked to be distributed.

"It has been a steady stream of people all day," Kristen Martin said. "It is unbelievable."

Those who arrived included the church and elementary school community in Hardin Valley, along with people with ties to the University of Tennessee and Lady Vols and also folks who heard about the drive through local news media.

"We had someone come from Campbell County, another from Sweetwater," Martin said. "There is a girl in town from Beverly Hills, California, that came because she heard it on the news.

"The Hardin Valley community is a true community. It has been amazing how many people have come from this area, the stores, people who work here, people who visit restaurants. So a lot of people we know and a lot of people we don't know."

Martin's career choice means she is accustomed to helping people in need, but now she is the one who also needs support.

"I have a lot of therapy friends that do what I do, and, of course, they are asking the same thing," Martin said. "Because I am really good at helping everyone else, and it's really hard when it hits home and deal with it. I have a lot of friends and a lot of support. The UT family has been amazing.

"I am taking it one day at a time, and it's hard not to have a good attitude because Anna has a fabulous attitude. She is so positive and it is kind of contagious. We have had our emotional times definitely. There have been a lot of ups and downs but, for the most part, we've been able to fight day by day."

Anna's attitude and spirit are uplifting. When asked how she keeps up her spirits, Anna smiled and said, "When I am at the hospital I like to squirt the nurses with water."

"She takes the syringes that the medicine comes in – the nurses have given her a few – and they have been in water fights the entire time she is there," Martin said. "She has had a lot of fun."

Anna was officially diagnosed in May and is receiving treatment for leukemia. She will need a bone marrow transplant to continue to treat and possibly cure her disease. Anna didn't have a genetic match within her family – 70 percent of those who need a transplant do not have a familial match – so she is relying now on another donor to turn up in the registry.

"In order to continue her treatment she has to have a match and go through the transplant," said Martin, who added that Anna has a good prognosis if she can get a match. "There are a lot of people like Anna, no matter the age, that are waiting for a match.

"(This drive) means there is going to be that many more people on the registry to be able to help someone and save their life. We are doing it not just for Anna but for everybody in our situation."

VIDEO COVERAGE: Anna and Kristen Martin talk about the drive.

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