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Student Survivor of Rare Disease Earns Second Scholarship

Derek cope 2012
Derek Cope

The Aplastic Anemia and MDS International Foundation (AA&MDSIF) has awarded aplastic anemia survivor Derek Cope a  $1,000 Matthew Debono Memorial Scholarship for the 2013-2014 academic year, as Cope enters his final year at Stony Brook University.

Matthew Debono was diagnosed in 1984 with severe aplastic anemia, a rare life-threatening disease that destroyed his body’s ability to produce red and white blood cells as well as platelets, when he was a freshman at Wabash College in Indiana. Debono died from complications of the disease 18 months after diagnosis. According to his parents, Sally and Manny Debono of Indianapolis, “Matthew always regretted not being able to receive a college education, so he and his brother conceived of a scholarship to help students who are similarly challenged by bone marrow failure disease.”

The Debono Family established the Matthew Debono Memorial Scholarship Program in 1986. It has now funded 68 scholarships since its’ inception. This marks the second year the family has partnered with the AA&MDSIF, a non-profit dedicated to supporting patients, families and caregivers affected by bone marrow failure diseases such as aplastic anemia, MDS (myelodysplastic syndromes) and PNH (paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria). Founded in 1983, the organization is a recognized and respected leader in patient education, patient and family support, and research.

“We congratulate Derek on his outstanding application and academic achievements,” said John Huber, AA&MDSIF executive director. “Most of all, we recognize the enormous effort and courage involved in overcoming bone marrow failure disease. He has every reason to be proud.”

Cope believes in the power of positive thinking. In late 2009, after his diagnosis of aplastic anemia and subsequent treatment of high-dose chemotherapy, he was fighting a mental battle as well as a physical one. He noticed that when he was feeling upset or pessimistic, his health and blood counts would decline. When he felt more optimistic, his counts improved. Once he realized the trend he said, “I began believing that I was going to beat my disease and never looked back.”

The two-time Debono scholar returned to college at Stony Brook University in Fall of 2010. Not only is he a strong student, he is immersed in leadership positions and community service initiatives. Cope is involved in undergraduate student government and is a volunteer at the Stony Brook Pediatric Cancer Center. Through his leadership as president of the men’s soccer club, a lack of recreation space was recognized, and a multi-million dollar project to develop field space was initiated.

In November 2012, Cope worked on a team that hosted the first student-run bone marrow drive at the University. In a one-day span, 841 people were added to the registry. One match has already been found through this drive.

Cope was recently accepted into the one-year accelerated Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing program at Stony Brook, and he plans to graduate in June 2014. His long-term goal is to become a nurse anesthetist and work in an operating room.

“I navigated through my disease with the support of my family and friends, and the belief that I was stronger than the disease I was battling,” said Cope. “I knew I had a full life to live and that although the disease presented many obstacles, I recognized I had no other choice but to face them head on. I cherished the fact that I was still alive, and I could never forget that. The best advice I can give to anyone battling aplastic anemia is not to think, ‘Why me?,’ but to think ‘You can’t beat me.’

“Receiving a scholarship from the AA&MDS International Foundation means to me that other people who are diagnosed with aplastic anemia will be able to read my story and truly know that things will get better with time,” he added. “I want my story to help bring people toward the realization of their own bravery and inspire each and every person that reads it.”

Please visit the web site to learn more about bone marrow failure diseases or the Matthew Debono Memorial Scholarship Program.

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