Allegheny Coach Relishes Chance to Save a Life

Allegheny College Head Volleyball Coach Kelly Barzak is “super excited” about being admitted to West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh in April. She has an opportunity to save someone’s life — and she’s all in.

“Not a lot of people actually get the opportunity to save someone’s life or give them a chance to survive. I’m thrilled to have been matched,” says Barzak.

Barzak will be donating blood stem cells to a complete stranger battling myelodysplastic syndrome, a cancer in which immature blood cells in the bone marrow do not mature and do not become healthy blood cells. The syndrome can be fatal within five years of its diagnosis.

No members of the man’s family have an exact match for his bone marrow to act as his donor. Barzak, as it turns out, is a “one in a million” match for the patient, and is happy to act as the donor.

Her journey started about five years ago when she volunteered to have her cheek swabbed at a community service event at Thiel College, where she was the volleyball coach at the time. “I had pretty much forgotten about it until I got a letter in 2018 from Be The Match, saying that I was a match for this patient,” she says. “I talked to my sister about the significance of being a match, and I did not hesitate to say yes.”

At the end of 2018, Barzak was scheduled to undergo the procedure to extract healthy blood cells, but at the last minute was informed that the procedure was on hold. However, at the end of January, she received a call from a representative of Be The Match, an organization that matches donors and recipients globally, saying that the patient was ready for transplant.

Barzak immediately went to Meadville Medical Center for blood testing to verify that she was a 100 percent match and to test for illnesses. She then went to the Cleveland Clinic on Feb. 14 for a comprehensive physical and received clearance to donate. For the five days prior to her donation, she will receive injections to increase her blood stem cell count.

A bone marrow transplant takes a donor’s healthy blood-forming cells and puts them into the patient’s bloodstream, where they begin to grow and make healthy red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

She will be going to West Penn Hospital for the six-hour procedure where her blood will be drawn out and sent through a machine to harvest her healthy blood stem cells. Then her blood will be returned to her body. “The main side effect is fatigue,” says Barzak.

Accompanying her to West Penn for the procedure will be her father, Joe Barzak, and her boyfriend, Dylan Fiebelkorn.

“I am amazingly blessed to have this opportunity to help save another person’s life,” says Barzak. “I would encourage other people to get on the registry. There’s a stigma that it’s painful, but with new technology and different options to choose from, it’s not as scary as some people make it out to be.”

While she doesn’t know who the recipient is, she will be allowed to write an anonymous letter to the man receiving her blood stem cells on the day of her donation. The recipient can respond, and, if after a year both parties agree, they can exchange contact information and meet.

Barzak says she will encourage the young women on the Allegheny volleyball team to consider getting on the registry. “It’s so important to give back,” she says. “The risk for the donor is very little, while the recipient stands to gain everything.”

Barzak has raised $420 from family and friends on Facebook for the organization. For more information about becoming a donor, go to https://join.bethematch.org/Allegheny or text Cure100 to 61474.