PLANT CITY, Fla. (AP) — Becky Dame was a college freshman when a stomachache sent her to the infirmary. That trip led to an unexpected and life-changing diagnosis: leukemia.
As the news sunk in, she drew strength from her faith.
"I knew God had always blessed me and I truly believed that it happened for a reason," she said. "I knew I needed to give back."
"I said 'God, if I can change one person's life, I'm OK with it.'"
After a bone marrow transplant from her sister and months of recovery, she resumed classes at Florida Southern and switched her major from music to nursing.
She turned her battle with her illness into her life's mission.
More than 21 years later, Dame uses her skills as a nurse and her experience as a patient to help others. She's a bone marrow transplant coordinator at Moffitt Cancer Center and spends much of her spare time advocating for Be The Match, a nonprofit that among other services helps match donors with ailing patients.
Patients with blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma and other life-threatening diseases need marrow or cord blood transplants to survive.
Last month she visited Washington, D.C., on Be The Match's behalf to lobby lawmakers to preserve funding for the nonprofit.
"She is very articulate and just went out and told her story on Capitol Hill," said Chad Ramsey, director of legislative relations for the donor registry. "She was very moving and she really knows about it."
She visited congressmen, including U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, who represents the Plant City area. He said he opposes cuts in federal funding to the registry.
"Her story is very compelling and her personality is contagious. She has a very unique perspective. She's been there, done that," Ross said.
Dame, 41, grew up in Plant City and after her 1991 graduation from Plant City High set out to become a music teacher. After deciding nursing would be her life's work, she became an RN and took her first job working the patient floors at Moffitt.
But her battle with leukemia was far from over.
She relapsed five times, always going into remission after treatment. But in 2010, doctors decided she needed another transplant from someone outside of her family.
All she knows is that the marrow came from a military serviceman in his 20s.
She's been in remission for five years - the longest since her original diagnosis.
Dame said the support of her husband Clint has helped give her the strength she needs to continue her untiring work to save others. The two married 19 years ago when her future was far from certain.
"He told me if we had six months together or 60 years, he didn't care. When they said we'd stick together through sickness or health, it really was that way. He is my rock. He's an amazing caregiver," she said.
Her illness has helped make her marriage stronger, she said.
"We never take for granted that we have a tomorrow. We never take each other for granted and we feel grateful for every day we're able to spend with each other."
On weekends, Dame frequently helps out with donor drives sponsored by Be The Match. Potential donors need to only fill out a health information form and allow a mouth swab so the nonprofit can match them with patients.
About one of every 500 registry members go on to donate to a patient.
Ramsey said Be The Match appreciates her work on its behalf.
"She is just a terrific advocate for us," he said. "She is very passionate about what she does."