Bigger Than the Game

Bigger Than the Game

By Katie Meier, Director of Athletic Communications

Several members of the Susquehanna football team are doing a heck of a lot more than playing a game. They are literally saving lives.

Some might remember a story from several years ago when former SU football player Ron Vilardi '15 donated bone marrow to help save the life of a cancer patient. A one in a million chance, right? Okay, technically, a one in 540 chance but the point is countless numbers register to be a bone marrow donor yet only one in the aforementioned 540 is actually a match and presented the opportunity to donate.

Given the long odds, it seemed likely that Vilardi would be the lone Susquehanna player for at least the foreseeable future who would go on to be a match and donate.

Wrong. In fact, that assumption is wrong two times over and in the span of just several months, no less.

This past summer, Ken Milano – a December 2015 graduate – and C.J. Virtu '17 became the second and third Susquehanna football players to literally help save lives through bone marrow donations.

Both Milano and Virtu volunteered to be on the bone marrow registry during Susquehanna's first Be the Match drive in the spring of 2014. The team would go on to host one in the spring of 2015, as well.

In the early part of the summer of 2015, Milano and Virtu received calls that they may be potential matches for two patients; several weeks later, the matches were confirmed and the two were faced with a decision on whether to proceed with the donation process.

From a football player's perspective, the timing certainly was not ideal. For Milano, it meant donating during week five of his senior season; for Virtu, it meant donating just one week before preseason camp, a critical two weeks for any player.

Milano gave a refreshingly honest take on the situation.

"I think it's ok to feel a little selfish at first," he said. "For me, it was my senior season but then you look at the bigger picture. Football can be over in 'x' number of years but I had the opportunity to give someone a chance at life. Maybe giving her a chance to pursue an athletic career of her own in the future. That's more important."

As Milano referenced, the patient in need of his bone marrow was a two-year old girl suffering from acute myeloma leukemia.

While Milano was ready to donate no matter the timing in regards to his season, the girl ended up needing additional weeks of chemotherapy so the donation was pushed back six weeks, meaning Milano donated immediately after the football season came to a close.

Milano was put under anesthesia and doctors drilled holes in hips to suck the marrow out of the hips with a large syringe. While Milano remained asleep for the procedure, he certainly felt the effects for weeks after.

"It was more painful than I expected," he said. "There's been some nagging back pain and soreness but I wasn't really nervous beforehand; I've had surgeries before. I was more nervous for the little girl, hoping it would work out."

Virtu, meanwhile, was facing his procedure exactly one week before reporting to preseason camp.

"When you register, you don't really think you're going to be a match but then in June I got a call saying I might be a potential match," Virtu explained. "I thought, 'wow, this might actually happen.' I knew it would probably have an impact on preseason but this was about the bigger picture. I talked to the coaches and they understood. There are things more important than football and this was one of them."

Unlike Milano, Virtu was awake for his procedure, which required lying in a hospital bed for five hours with needles in his arms to extract the marrow. While Virtu felt relatively normal soon after the procedure, the medicine he was given prior to the procedure to increase his white blood cell count temporarily enlarged his spleen, meaning contact was a no-go for two weeks.

"Missing part of preseason definitely set me back for the season but I realized I could potentially save someone's life," Virtu said. "It was just the right thing to do."

Virtu's recipient was a 70-year-old female cancer patient which hit home for the junior. The patient was roughly the age of his grandparents, making the process more personal.

No matter which procedure is done and who the patient is, donors are given limited information. They receive general monthly updates on the status of the recipient and after six months, phone contact can be made if both parties agree. One year after the procedure, patients can meet their donors – again, if both parties agree.

Neither Milano nor Virtu is approaching the one-year mark any time soon, but Virtu received something very special in the mail – a letter from the recipient of his bone marrow donation.

"That meant a lot," Virtu said. "It made the whole thing seem even more real. She was so thankful."

Milano and Virtu are thankful they were able to help save lives and Susquehanna University is thankful to have such selfless men representing its football team.