Jefferson Awards: Woman fights for Amy's Army


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Kate Rosenthal's father raised her to be a doer, not an observer. When her best friend's daughter, then 10 years old, was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood leukemia five years ago, she found inspiration in his words.

The upshot was the formation of Amy's Army, a group of volunteers who have helped to find bone marrow donors for 23 people scattered all over while continuing to look for one for Amy Katz, who is now 16.

"My dad used to tell me when I was a kid: Most people sit back and watch things happen and wait for things to happen," said Mrs. Rosenthal, 49, of Mt. Lebanon. "He always said to me, 'Be the kind of person who makes things happen.' I think that was my motivation with Amy's Army. ...

"We were told by official people there was nothing that could be done [to find a bone marrow match for Amy], but I wanted to make it happen."

She still does, working 40 hours a month on Amy's Army business, serving as treasurer while also helping to set up, work at and clean up at bone marrow registration drives. She also serves on a local committee of the United Jewish Federation and has just finished serving a two-year term on the board of Temple Emanuel in Mt. Lebanon.

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For her volunteer work, Mrs. Rosenthal has been named a winner of the 2008 Jefferson Award for Public Service, which honors outstanding volunteers in the region.

The winners will be honored Feb. 12 at an awards ceremony at the Carnegie Museums of Art and National History. At the event William J. Green & Associates will present a $1,000 donation to Amy's Army on Ms. Rosenthal's behalf.

Amy holds her leukemia "at bay" by taking a daily oral chemotherapy drug called Gleevec, says her mother, Lisa Katz. The only cure is stem cells most often taken from donated bone marrow.

There are days, her mother said, when the chemo causes unpleasant side effects, such as stomach issues, headaches or joint pain. "But you would never know it, and, unless it's a good friend, she doesn't talk about it. ...

"She just wants to do what everybody else is doing," Mrs. Katz added. "She's your basic 16-year-old. She has a boyfriend; she has her learner's permit. She's a coxswain for her school [rowing] team. She's just plunging ahead."

As is Amy's Army, which has registered more than 8,000 people in the National Bone Marrow Registry in 12 states, creating the possibility that more donor-patient matches will be found. And the army's efforts will continue. That has been clear from the time Mrs. Rosenthal and co-founder Janice Keilly told the Katzes about the formation and goals of Amy's Army.

"They said they would do whatever it took, however it needed to be done [and] they committed themselves to [working] as long as it would take," Mrs. Katz said.

Five years later Amy's Army is still going strong with a troop of about 100 volunteers.

In the beginning there were just Mrs. Keilly with one idea for helping the Katzes and Mrs. Rosenthal with another.

"I was head of the [Temple Emanuel] caring community committee, and when we found out about Amy, I said to Lisa Katz that we would do anything we could to help, and in my naivete I thought, 'We'll have a blood drive at the synagogue.' Little did I know what Kate had in mind," Mrs. Keilly said.

While Mrs. Keilly was thinking synagogue, Mrs. Rosenthal was thinking the world.

The two of them set out to recruit a steering committee with the skills to make Mrs. Rosenthal's idea a reality.

"Between the two of us we put together a really great group," Mrs. Rosenthal said. "Some were temple members, some weren't. Some were Jewish; some weren't." There were people from sales and marketing and hospital administration, attorneys, people with accounting skills. Perhaps best of all, the eight or so members of that committee were what Mrs. Rosenthal called "professional volunteers."

"We ran it like a business," Mrs. Rosenthal said. "We had meetings. We had chairpeople, a treasurer's report."

In her spare time -- Mrs. Rosenthal estimated she put in 40 hours a week into Amy's Army during the early years -- she did research.

"I did a lot of that, calling organizations at the national level that were involved in maintaining databanks with DNA information. I needed to learn about how bone marrow transplants worked. ... how databanks were maintained and by whom [and] how do you do a donor drive." She also had to find out how to cover the lab costs for the bone marrow testing.

"We decided we had a two-fold mission that worked together very well: Find a stem cell donor for Amy, the main goal, through screening drives, but we also wanted money for Amy if she would need any sort of medical care not covered by insurance, like experimental treatments or surgery."

As it turned out, Amy got Gleevec as insurance-approved treatment for her chronic myelogenous leukemia, a blood cancer typically found in adults 60 or older. The Food and Drug Administration had approved Gleevec for pediatric use just three months before her diagnosis, and Amy helped determine how it affected children by participating in a study.

But Gleevec is not a cure, so Amy's Army will continue its campaign to find her a bone marrow match. You can be sure Kate Rosenthal will be at the helm.

"She never flags ... and every time there's been a match found it's like we personally have gone out and put two people together," said Mrs. Keilly, now the army's executive director.

"That's why Kate keeps going and won't give up that we'll find one for Amy. I don't think 'discourage' is in Kate's vocabulary."

The battle for bone marrow


Amy's Army exists to find a donor for Amy Katz, a 16-year-old Mt. Lebanon resident who is fighting leukemia, and in the process it helps others to find their matches. For more information, visit amysarmy.org or call 1-877-AID-4-AMY (1-877-243-4269).


Pohla Smith can be reached at psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.


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