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Alumni Spotlight: Michaela Kerls, BA ’08, MLS ’15, JD ’19

Alumna donates stem cells to leukemia patient, encourages others to join the donor registry

Michaela Kerls

(Michaela Kerls pictured afer completing her donation. Photo submitted)

From the School of Law Alumni Newsletter - Spring 2021
By Jeremy Wangler

Michaela Kerls was walking through the Memorial Union as an undergraduate political science student at Washburn University when a group tabling caught her attention. Be The Match was having a drive to sign people up to become potential bone marrow donors.

“I saw that it was a simple cheek swab to get on the registry,” said Kerls, BA ’08, MLS ’15, JD ’19. “I did it, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if anything’s ever going to come out of it.’

“Thirteen years later, I got a call out of blue asking if I was still available to donate. How can I not be? A 20-year-old kid needs help.”

That call came on April 16 this year. Within three weeks she passed a physical, took injections that increased her stem cell production, flew to Seattle to donate, spent a morning on a machine that collected the stem cells, and was back in Topeka.

“The people at Be the Match are really great,” Kerls said. “They took care of everything. It was probably one of the least stressful trips I ever had to take.”

Kerls donated peripheral blood stem cells to a leukemia patient. She’s available if the patient needs more, and after a year, the patient has the option to contact Kerls. Be The Match said 79% of donations are peripheral blood stem cells while the remaining donations are a surgical removal – usually outpatient – of marrow from the donor. If a donor doesn’t sign up somewhere in person, they can sign up online and Be The Match will mail them a swab kit.

Kerls recommends anyone sign up for the registry, especially if you’re a person of color.

“If you're a white patient, then you've probably got a good chance of finding somebody on the registry,” she said. “If you're a person of color, it turns a lot more into a lottery, and so, I think if anybody has an opportunity, it's painless. It's a drop in the bucket compared to what I can only imagine people with leukemia and other diseases that need bone marrow transplants need. It's so easy to just do.”

She rejects the label of heroic for her action, though many would argue her selfless action was heroic.

“Of all the people who are doing things in the whole grand scheme of things, I'm probably doing the least,” Kerls said. “I had extra, and he needed extra.”

Kerls works as a legal assistant for James Heathman, BBA ’87, JD ’90, at Heathman Law Office in Topeka as she prepares to take the bar exam. She is married to Christina Kerls, BA ’02, JD ’05, and the couple has one daughter.

“Washburn has been an important part of my life. Just the sheer act of me being there has now impacted somebody else.”

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