Donor Coach Mike London (right), with his wife Regina (left), and recipient daughter Ticynn (center)
As we sit down with Coach Michael London, head football coach at The College of William and Mary, a bright blue shirt is displayed behind him with the words “Be The Match®.” He shares with us what this means to him, how his bone marrow donation saved his daughter’s life and the emotional journey he continues to fight for on and off the field.
The diagnosis and the search for a match
It all started in Boston, Massachusetts, when Coach London and his wife, Regina, took their then 4-year-old daughter, Ticynn, to the hospital. She was showing continued symptoms of a cold she couldn’t shake . It was there they learned their daughter was suffering from Fanconi anemia, a rare blood disorder that affects bone marrow and the ability to fight off infections.
At the time of the diagnosis, Coach London remembers, “As young parents, we were just trying to figure out what to do, and the sobering news was that the only cure for this disease was a bone marrow transplant.” It was devastating news to him and his wife, who desperately wished they could buy something or had hope there was a pill that would help—just something else they could do. At this time, physicians helped to educate the Londons on the bone marrow need and donation process. “In our case, our other children, my family’s, brother’s and sister’s kids, our relatives … we all got involved in the National Bone Marrow Registry, but we couldn’t find a match.”
As Coach London was transitioning from leaving coaching at Boston College to go to the University of Virginia, they visited Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, as a donor match was yet to be found. “At one particular meeting, the doctor said, ‘Ok, Mr. London, let’s try you,’ but we knew the odds that a parent is a match for their own child is like 10,000-to-1. So, they took my blood and my wife’s blood and a day later we get a call and the doctor said, ‘Mr. London, when can you come back up here? We found a match,’ and I said, ‘Who?’ and he said, ‘You!’”
At this point, Coach London pauses with us, holds back tears and shares in a shaken voice, “Looking for a match all those years, and then at that moment, the doctor tells me that I was not only a match, but I was also a perfect match.” And on April 29, 2003, the bone marrow transplant process began.
While Ticynn was upstairs in her room at Johns Hopkins going through radiation and chemotherapy, Coach London’s bone marrow was collected in another room and then placed into her drip cord. As her transplant was taken, they anxiously watched the counts. He explained how the counts doubled and tripled slowly, showing the transplant was a success. “I’m a football coach and I’m like … He’s at the 10 ... He’s at the 5 … Touchdown!”
The tough odds and statistics
In looking back, Coach London said it was surreal all the difficult statistics he had to hear while trying to find a match. Currently, the chance of having a matched, available donor on the Be The Match Registry® ranges from 29-79% depending on patient ethnic background. Black and African American patients are on the very bottom of that scale, having a 29% chance of finding a matching, available donor. More Black and African American donors are needed to help increase the odds.
These statistics, along with the odds of being a parent that was a match, make him feel very thankful. He said he feels extremely blessed for having been a parent that was a match even though those odds were tougher. He explained beating these odds made him even more committed to raising awareness for people to get involved. “The doctor said the odds were 10,000-to-1 that I would be a match; it would be 10,000-to-0 if I didn’t get involved. And so, 10,000-to-1, I will take those odds.”
Today Ticynn is thriving
Since her transplant, Ticynn has been healthy and thriving. Now at age 27, she is a head high-school athletic trainer. Coach London believes her experiences with Fanconi anemia inspired her interest in coaching, sharing that, “When she was at Johns Hopkins and she was laying in her bed, she would see the nurses get up and take people, get them up and walk them around and serve individuals’ needs. She was watching.” He explained that he draws this conclusion because she watched those in the medical profession demonstrate compassion toward others, and this was the catalyst to her career as an athletic trainer to help and encourage others. He expressed that he could not be prouder of his daughter.
Raising Awareness: Be The Match and the Andy Tally Bone Marrow Foundation
For many years, Coach London has worked tirelessly at getting college players involved and educating others about Be The Match in addition to serving on the board of the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation.
Each of the 15-plus years he has been head coach, he organizes a bone marrow drive on campus, stating, “I’ve intently and purposefully educated our players though Be The Match and through people that come and visit with us.” He noted that the ages between 18-24 are the prime years for marrow donation. “I am in a college setting, and so it’s a perfect situation for me to talk about and educate people and to hold drives. Like I say, Coach Talley has done a phenomenal job on getting college football connected with doing these drives.” The Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation and its renowned Get in the Game. Save a Life® recruitment program utilizes the power of all collegiate athletics to recruit marrow donors for the Be The Match Registry.
He went on to say that out of the four colleges where he has been a head coach, he has had seven players become matches and save other people’s lives. One was, in fact, an athletic trainer who swabbed his cheek at one of the drives. “That’s what we do, that’s why you see the shirt behind me,” he said.
During these drives, a big part of Coach London’s communication to others is dispelling the inaccurate myths of bone marrow donation, specifically that it would physically hurt. He shared that the drives allow conversations to arise, and he can dispel the myths with education.
“And so that is my story,” Coach London said. “I tell it to my players, and I tell it to everybody.” With a grin, he added that coaches are supposed to be rough and tough, but says he cries every time he shares this story. As our conversation concludes, he makes a point to mention the graciousness of others that helped his family through their journey, including a gentleman that rented out the top floors of a hotel for families like his to stay in, which was close to Johns Hopkins during Ticynn’ s lengthy treatment, and his fellow coaches that moved practice times around so he could travel to the hospital during her awake hours. “Watching her now do the things that somebody exemplified to her, and now having the chance knowing that I’ve had people be matches and saved people’s lives—I say why not, why would you not get involved?”
Every year, the London family has cake and ice cream for each family member’s birthday. On April 29, Ticynn receives a second one to celebrate her “new life birthday.” “We are celebrating life,” Coach London said.