About twice a month, Mary Pat Hankla hits the airport with a handheld white cooler that doesn’t leave her grip – not for check in, not for security, not for coffee in one hand and a magazine in the other.
Not even for the bathroom.
For someone – Mary Pat never knows who – the contents of that small, unremarkable box are the difference between life and death.
A heavy thing to hold in your hands, right?
It would be for most, but as a 32-year veteran of the Kentucky State Police forensics department, the crime lab biologist is used to dealing with weighty matters.
Ten years ago, that would have meant finding DNA from blood samples in a deadly assault; today, it’s transporting bone marrow across the nation for cancer patients facing the 11th hour.
Either way, Mary Pat is at ease with her role as facilitator.
BECOMING A COURIER
At a high school class reunion in 2008, a freshly retired Mary Pat chatted with a former classmate who’d become a bone marrow courier with the National Marrow Donor Program.
Mary Pat had never wanted to lounge in retirement, and the biologist within was curious.
“I immediately got interested and asked her how I could get into it,” she said.
Bone marrow couriers aren’t picked on specific criteria, but the selection process is strict.
Couriers are responsible for making sure the correct product is picked up and delivered in a timely manner and intact. Although the cells can survive up to 48 hours at room temperature, they begin to lose viability as soon as they’re collected.
Each year, 10,000 patients with leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anemia and other life-threatening diseases need a marrow transplant from an unrelated donor, but only half receive one.
When Mary Pat got word that her application to become a courier had been accepted, the 66-year-old says she had mixed emotions.
“At first I thought to myself, ‘Oh, you’ll be saving lives,’ but then I learned that once a person gets to the place where bone marrow is needed, there’s only about a 50 percent survival rate.”
Though 50 percent was heart-wrenchingly low, Mary Pat knew it was better than zero. She started scheduling trip assignments right away.
Open trips are emailed out to couriers, who sign up based on their own availability and generally travel regionally (i.e. Midwest, East Coast for a Kentucky volunteer).
The cooler can’t go through an X-ray machine, so airports can be a hassle. Mary Pat travels with an official letter of explanation, which she says usually calms down high-strung security guards who insist on swabbing for explosives.
TAKING THE HARD CASES
Mary Pat has been as far west as Houston and Oklahoma City, but home is Frankfort with her husband, Scott Hankla, a former employee with the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet and current president of the Frankfort Audubon Society.
The two met at the University of Kentucky in a pathogenic bacteriology lab, which she describes as “so romantic” through some self-deprecating laughter.
After graduating with a degree in medical technology, Mary Pat started in the crime lab biology department in 1973.
Sexual assault, assault, murder – you name it, she handled it.
“If there was a biological fluid there, then we got called in,” she says.
Mary Pat can’t talk about specifics, but says some cases are hard to forget.
“Child cases were always the worst, but you learn to separate yourself,” she says.
“You are an analytical person. Your job is to get the best answers out of the evidence and then see what happens. There has to be a division in your mind. You couldn’t do your job if you were totally emotionally involved with every case that came in.”
One investigation in particular swirled with extra pressures – a nationally publicized 1982 murder case involving the slaying of an accountant and three CBS News technicians from New York City.
Mary Pat and KSP aided the FBI in forensics testing of the van that transported the bodies, which was found just outside Shelbyville several days after the killings.
The case, a real-life drama filled with the shady dealings of a bankrupt diamond corporation and a hit man who got in over his head, eventually became an award-winning book and a television special on the Discovery Channel. Mary Pat took part in the reenactments.
“In 32 and a half years there was never a dull moment,” she says. “I can’t imagine a more fascinating, challenging, sometimes frustrating job. There was very definitely a sense of pride when you solved a case.”
And even in retirement, Mary Pat still finds that sense of fulfillment, now as a bone marrow courier.
“I can’t explain it,” she says. “It’s a very, very, ‘I’m doing something worthwhile’ kind of feeling.”
If you are interested in becoming a bone marrow donor or would like more information, contact the “Be the Match Registry” at http://marrow.org/Home.aspx.