NCAA-bound UIC softball pitcher driven to expand bone-marrow donor pool – Chicago Tribune

By daniellenierenberg

On the morning of a game at Youngstown State earlier this season, Illinois-Chicago softball pitcher Karissa Frazier arrived armed for a successful road trip.

Frazier packed enough kits to perform cheek swabs on Youngstown State players who had agreed to add their samples to a worldwide bone-marrow registry. So Frazier hopped on a bus to the ballpark by herself, gave a presentation on the #swab2save campaign in her role as UIC’s campus ambassador for Gift of Life, and helped swab the young women she would try to strike out later in the series.

And what a pitch the All-Horizon League hurler made.

One Youngstown State player was inspired enough by Frazier to request 200 swab kits to begin her own drive. Another immediately reached out to Gift of Life the global not-for-profit marrow and blood stem cell donor registry facilitating transplants and became the Ohio campus’s representative.

“After Karissa was done swabbing players that day, she came back to our hotel and got ready for the game like normal,” UIC coach Lynn Curylo said. “How amazing is that?”

For the UIC softball team, the trip to Eugene, Ore., to play Oregon on Friday in the NCAA tournament, its first appearance in six years, offers an opportunity to provide evidence of progress at the end of Curylo’s promising first season. For Frazier, a junior right-hander with a 13-8 record and a 1.53 earned-run average, the journey represents that and more, another chance to spread awareness of a cause as powerful as her fastball.

“This has pushed me in the right direction and opened my eyes to all the things I could do to change people’s lives for the better,” Frazier said. “I’m hoping to swab all three teams at our NCAA regional. And I’d love to go to the College World Series and swab all the teams there.”

Seeing an emotional meeting between a donor and recipient left an indelible impression on Frazier. But a brush with a family friend back home in Temecula, Calif., first lit a fire within the public health major. A friend’s decision to become a bone-marrow donor allowed a woman to live an additional six years and see the birth of her first grandchild and the wedding of her daughter.

“I just knew this was something I’d really enjoy doing so one day I could help save someone’s life,” Frazier said.

Back at UIC last August, Frazier interviewed with Gift of Life, which sought college ambassadors to increase potential donors in the 18- to 25-year-old demographic. Frazier’s bosses established two goals for her: Swab 500 people overall and 250 males research shows males are three times less likely to sign up than women but twice as likely to be a match. When Frazier left Wednesday for Oregon, she had accumulated more than 700 total swab samples, including nearly 300 from males.

“I used my softball player status to expand getting a broader range of people,” Frazier said.

Last fall, Frazier set up a table next to the UIC ticket booth and attended more sporting events than Sparky the mascot. As people passed by, Frazier did her best to demystify the swabbing process.

“I tell people it’s easy and if you’re willing to take three to five minutes, you could save somebody’s life,” Frazier said.

Those who say yes start by taking a health survey on their smartphones. Then Frazier gives participants a kit that includes four Q-tips, each to be rubbed on the inside of the corners of a person’s mouth. The samples are sealed in the kit, the person’s name goes on a label, and the registry grows. It’s that simple.

“A lot of people think the process is super scary, but I just explain there’s only one in 500 chance of being a match for someone and, if you are a match, then 80 percent of the time you just donate peripheral stem cells via regular blood draw,” Frazier said. “And 20 percent of the time, they take bone marrow from your hip. But for the rest of your life, you can say you literally saved someone’s life.”

Curylo not only encouraged her star pitcher to pursue her passion, even if that meant traveling to Tinley Park on some game days to get swabs from visiting teams, but challenged Frazier to think bigger. It was Curylo’s idea to swab every team in the Horizon League, which created the unintended consequence of camaraderie.

“This brought teams in our conference together,” said Curylo, the conference coach of the year. “We usually go to games, compete, get on our bus and go home. But after we beat Oakland, we hung out and talked because we were all helping Karissa. She’s finding a way to make herself matter off the field as much as she does on it.”

She’s a college student attacking leukemia and lymphoma as fiercely as she does hitters, a young woman hoping to change the world with the Peace Corps after making it better at UIC.

“What’s amazing is Karissa is so completely different as a person than she is as a pitcher,” Curylo said. “Pitching, she’s poker-faced, no emotion, gets the job done. But away from that, she’s one of the sweetest, most giving, best teammates around. She has two sides.”

You might say they’re a perfect match.

dhaugh@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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NCAA-bound UIC softball pitcher driven to expand bone-marrow donor pool – Chicago Tribune

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