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Labor Day Plans for a Gift of Life

August 24, 2011 By:
Elyse Glickman, JE Feature
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Marshal Davis (left) and Jacob Kowalik now have a lifelong bond.

Marshal Davis is in the process of planning a Labor Day Weekend gathering at his parents' home in Margate, N.J. However, it is not a barbeque; it is a literal celebration of life, and Davis and his family hope it will have far-reaching effects.

The event -- a donor drive -- is being planned in collaboration with the Gift of Life Foundation (giftoflife.org). Davis, of Furlong, Pa., an attorney who also owns and operates Liberty Fencing Club with his wife, Helen, says his goals for the event include finding organ donors and raising money to circulate and process test kits that could contain life-saving genetic typing and matching information connecting donors to critically ill individuals.

Over a decade ago, it was a similar event at a Hillel Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville staged by the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, based out of Boca Raton, that would profoundly change his life and save a young Chicago boy suffering from leukemia.

From Davis' perspective, life's most precious gifts often arrive in the most interesting ways. In this current situation, he received a phone call 18 months ago reminding him he had had his cheek swabbed during his college years at the University of Florida and that, so many years later, the foundation had found a bone-marrow match for a patient. That patient, then 5 years of age, was suffering from Myelodysplastic syndrome, which could lead to acute leukemia.

When Davis and his recipient, Jacob Kowalik, met, the experience proved to be life-changing. Davis had arranged a meeting with Jacob through his parents when Davis was in Chicago as coach of the Swarthmore College fencing team, which was competing in national championships at the University of Chicago this May.

Parents Mike and Jennifer Kowalik, however, decided to add an extra element of surprise to that meeting.

"When I came down on the hotel elevator with my parents, wife, Helen, and friend Jon, the Kowaliks had cameras ready to capture our reactions when we met for the first time," beams Davis.

"It was an overwhelming moment, and I had to watch the video again, to relive it again, with the emotional impact of knowing that I was meeting somebody who would not be alive today if this technology that enabled the transplant had not existed."

"The events over the last two years has matured Jacob well beyond his years," observes Mike Kowalik. "Jacob was always inquisitive about his condition, methods of treatment and medication, along with why he is still not 'normal.'

"Once he met Marshal, his donor, it all started to come together for him," says Kowalik. "He now has a life-long friend in Marshal and a bond has been created between him and our entire family that can never be erased."

Davis, meanwhile, also feels taking the extra step to meet Jacob and his family will have a far-reaching impact that goes beyond the Kowalik family and himself. He says he believes that because of the media attention their meeting generated, many people who did not know about Jacob's illness will be moved to sign up to be donors with the registry.

"As I see it, I had the opportunity to put a real face to the name of the child whose life I was saving," notes Davis. "One of the things I tell Jacob is that he is now a hero saving lives because he shared his story.

"On a day-to-day basis, having done this makes life less stressful at work. After going through something like this, anything that happens at work is put into perspective," says the attorney specializing in business and nonprofit matters.

"If I am having a bad day at work, I can brush it off more quickly, after having met Jacob and his family."

Just the Beginning

Mike Kowalik agrees that the meeting between Marshal and Jacob is not a completion of the donation process, but the beginning of a lifelong journey that will include his family traveling together with his newfound East Coast "relatives."

"We have learned firsthand how precious life is, and how this medical procedure and treatment process can offer new hope to many patients in need," says Kowalik.

"Our collective efforts to educate" the public when it comes to "the need for bone marrow donors is an ongoing part of our lives," he adds.

"We have worked to help rally new donors by telling the story of how our son Jacob and his donor, Marshal, came together, with the hope that others will be inspired to also be a hero."

This year has been one of accomplishment for Davis, especially as he just served as head coach for the U.S. fencing team at the 2011 European Maccabi Games in Vienna. Under his guidance, the team won 11 individual medals and three team medals.

The Davis family Gift of Life Foundation drive takes place Sunday, Sept. 4, from 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., at 9600 Atlantic Ave., Margate.

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