Annabelle Kopcan stands with nurses, in masks, at a clinic after donating stem cells.

Stem cell donation leads to advocacy for student

Annabelle Kopcan, a senior who is majoring in speech language pathology, went way out of her comfort zone to save the life of a stranger.

Kopcan donated her stem cells through the Gift of Life Marrow Registry to a man in Florida who was battling a type of blood cancer. Kopcan will be the first to admit that she doesn't really care for needles.

"I really don't like needles, in fact, they scare me," she said.

Donating stem cells was far from her mind when Kopcan and friends attended Lakerthon in February 2020. An annual event, Lakerthon promotes children's health issues through presentations; Kopcan was impressed by the Gift of Life presentation and completed a quick cheek swab to add to the registry. She was familiar with the process.

"I have a friend whose younger brother is now two years cancer-free because of a stem cell transplant he had," she said.

Last year, Kopcan received a call from Gift of Life that her swab was a potential match for a man in his 70s who lives in Florida and has myelodysplastic disorder, a type of blood cancer that can progress to become leukemia. 

"I was kind of shocked to get a call but thought, 'I'm not going to back out now,'" she said.

Annabelle Kopcan lies in a chair to donate stem cells.
Annabelle Kopcan donates stem cells at the Gift of Life Marrow Registry headquarters in Florida.
Image credit - courtesy photo

In January, she underwent a physical examination and several injections to promote stem cell growth. Kopcan and her mother then flew to Florida to the Gift of Life headquarters in Boca Raton. The organization paid for the trip, meals, lodging and gas to the airport, Kopcan said.

Donating stem cells is typically a four- to six-hour procedure. Kopcan said, while the initial injection was not her favorite memory of the trip, everything went smoothly. Now six months after her donation, Kopcan said she has heard the patient is doing well. If he agrees, she hopes to meet him in person after the one-year mark.

"It's really the best thing to ever happen to me. I was involved in giving someone a better chance at life," she said.

She's now a Grand Valley Campus Ambassador for Gift of Life and has ideas on how to raise awareness of the organization on campus. Kopcan is the president of the student chapter of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA) and hopes to host a swabbing event. She also hopes to partner with organizations that reach students of color because of the disparities among ethnicities and the ability to find matches for bone marrow and stem cells.

"Different ethnicities are not well represented in the registry, so we really need to spread the word," Kopcan said.

Learn how to get involved on campus online at


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