GREENFIELD — Eric Davis was too young to remember, but in the spring of 1990, his toddler grin was pasted across collection jars in most every store in Greenfield.
“Let Eric have the opportunity for life,” implored the fliers and donation jars put up by his grandparents, who still call Hancock County home.
Davis, a tow-headed boy just 2 years old at the time, had a blood disease and was in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant. In a matter of months, area supporters raised $100,000 to cover his expenses — the transplant that saved his life didn’t come until he was in high school — in a show of support he and his family never forgot.
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Now, Davis, 29, has been selected to lead a team that works to connect bone marrow donors with patients going through the same ordeal he went through as a child. Davis, who now lives in New York, is the new manager of the unrelated donor search program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, overseeing four program coordinators who help connect patients whose relatives are not a match with stem cell donations.
And it’s news his grandparents, Keith and Dee Davis of Greenfield, are proud to share, often with the same friends and community supporters who were there when their grandson was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare blood disease, so many years ago.
Looking back on that journey — and the good work they know their grandson will do going forward — they believe he survived for just this reason, they said.
Eric Davis — who grew up in Carmel after his parents moved from Hancock County — didn’t know the donor progrwam existed until he’d been working at Memorial Sloan Kettering for two years as a research assistant, and someone drew his attention to an opening for a program coordinator position, he said.
He thought back on his own experience. He can’t remember much about that time — dashing during a family vacation to an emergency room in Florida when he first got sick, or flying from there with his mother by medical helicopter back to Indiana, where they learned of the battle ahead; what he does remember are things like his doctor showing up to his room with a teddy bear or his grandmother giving him a toy telephone. He remembers riding tricycles through the hospital hallways with his big brothers, who were visiting him.
“It was a terrible point in my life, but the people who cared for me made sure that the only things that stuck were high points,” he said.
When Eric Davis saw that job posting, he knew this was his chance; he wanted to be that bright spot for a patient in need.
“It was surreal,” he said. “I had never considered leaving the research team at all, but when I saw the position, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue.”
It wasn’t the first time the former patient felt called to help others who were going through what he’d endured growing up. In college, he joined the board of the Indiana University Dance Marathon, an annual 36-hour event in November that raises money for the Riley Hospital for Children, where he received his transplant.
Now, his new position brings an experience that began in 1990 full circle.
That April, Eric Davis had just been diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a disease that stops the bone marrow from producing red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. He needed a bone marrow transplant, and no one in the Davis family was a match. Finding an unrelated donor — a process that involved searching registries and then testing possible tissue matches — would cost as much as $100,000.
While the search for a donor continued, doctors treated the boy with two drugs that worked to lower his body’s immune response, allowing his bone marrow stem cells to grow.
Those chemical treatments kept him healthy for 10 years. When he started showing signs the disease’s symptoms were returning, doctors said it was time for a transplant.
Doctors found a match in a 54-year-old man in Germany, and he underwent the surgery in 2004. It was the start of a normal childhood for Eric Davis, who is now considered cured.
He graduated from Carmel High School and went on to major in biology at Indiana University in Bloomington. In 2011, he began working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; he obtained his master’s degree in public health, epidemiology and biostatistics from the City University of New York — Hunter College while working full time.
He carries with him enormous gratitude for the people who donated toward the effort to find him a donor when he was just 2 years old. He remembers the phone calls, the letters and other encouragement throughout his battle with aplastic anemia. And he hopes to offer those same comforts to his own patients.
“We wouldn’t have made it without the community’s support,” he said.
People from Greenfield, Carmel and Seymour — where his mother, Teresa (Bottorf) Foreman, grew up — rallied around the Davis family, said his father, Kevin Davis.
And his grandparents kept track of it all. They still have a bound journal of the documents, letters and blog posts about their grandson’s journey. The book opens with a letter Kevin Davis wrote to staff at Carmel Junior High School, where he was assistant principal, explaining what had happened during that vacation in Florida.
Keith and Dee Davis carefully preserved every news clipping, every letter of support, to show their grandson one day when he was old enough to understand. Both long-time educators with deep roots in the community, they remember the kindness their family was shown during such a difficult time, said Keith Davis, Eric Davis’ grandfather.
“Hancock County stepped up for this,” he said.