Christina Merrill: President & CEO, the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation (BMCF)

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My Native Admission Statement: Since beginning the Foundation in 1992, I have dedicated my life to improving the quality of life for cancer patients and bone marrow/stem cell transplant patients and their families. While attending Columbia University School of Social Work, my work with pediatric and adult cancer patients changed my life, and ignited my passion for patient support and advocacy, which has led to the founding of the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation.

Many of the patients we assist are unable to afford pre- and post-treatment expenses such as temporary housing near a cancer center, transportation to medical appointments, health insurance co- payments, medication, and more. After receiving a life changing diagnosis, there shouldn’t be additional stress or worry about affording live-saving treatments. Since its inception, the Foundation has connected patients and their families with essential resources and programs to meet patient and family’s needs, all free of cost. At the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation, a patient is not just a number, but a part of a thriving and caring community of people who build powerful relationships from diagnosis through survivorship.

I had an unconventional upbringing which consisted of traveling around the country with my 3 sisters - competing in the equestrian world of show jumping, in addition to spending time watching my musician father perform with legendary artists like Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. I was homeschooled until I was 21 years old, and this, along with my competitive equestrian training, gave me a foundation of self-discipline and determination that has allowed me to create and sustain an organization for 27 years.

About Christina Merrill

Christina Merrill is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation. Since she began the Foundation in 1992, Christina has touched the lives of thousands of children and adults. For over 27 years, Christina has dedicated her time to improving the quality of life for transplant and cancer patients and their families with vital financial assistance, educational information, and emotional support programs at no cost. Assisting more than 100,000 patients and their families, the Foundation helps those diagnosed with any cancer diagnosis, and/or those in need of a bone marrow transplant, make effective decisions about their treatment and its aftermath. The youngest of four girls, Christina and her sisters traveled the world with their equestrian riding and with musician father, and had a life filled from legendary artists like Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. From her unconventional homeschooling which lasted until she was 21 years old to her professional equestrian career, Christina acquired the dedication and discipline to start and maintain an organization that impacts the lives of those most in need. Christina received her Master’s Degree in Social Work at Columbia University and received the University’s Social Work Alumni Association’s 2016 Hall of Fame and Pioneer Award. She worked as a social work intern in pediatrics at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the adult bone marrow transplant department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, and through these experiences, Christina saw the need for better patient and financial care in the healthcare system.

About Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation:

The Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation, founded in 1992, is dedicated to improving the quality of life for cancer and transplant patients and their families by providing vital financial assistance, comprehensive resources, educational information, physician referrals, and emotional support programs. Guided by a medical advisory board of nationally-recognized cancer specialists and working with hospitals across the United States, the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation is the only organization of its kind that does not limit assistance to a specific disease, type of transplant or age range. For the past 27 years, the Foundation has connected patients and their families with the services they need—from diagnosis through survivorship—to make effective decisions about treatment and its aftermath. All of the Foundation’s programs and services are offered to patients and their families free of charge. BMCF has worked to create programs and transform its resources to fill the emotional and financial needs for cancer and bone marrow transplant patients – whether it’s finding a home close to a care center for free or a scholarship for those who can no longer afford their education. To learn more about the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation, please go to: http://bonemarrow.org/

How did you get into the industry?

While attending the Columbia University School of Social Work, I interned in pediatrics at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, supporting kids who had cancer and their parents who were facing unfathomable scenarios. Many parents had to continue working their day jobs: to pay rent, keep the electricity on, and additionally, pay for the medication and homecare support for their child. At the same time, their child would be crying every morning for their parents not to leave them during their chemotherapy treatments or transplants. Comforting these parents and their children was all I could do at this time - but leaving work was so difficult because I felt helpless in these scenarios: why should a parent ever have to choose between going to work to keep their home or being able to be present with their child while they undergo these procedures?

I witnessed many obstacles that these families faced upon receiving a diagnosis, such as many of these children being unable to use public transportation (due to compromised immune systems), the patients living far away from a care center, the cost of treatments, and more. After seeing families looking for solutions to these problems, while they were already in their darkest hours, I knew I had to do everything I could to provide the patients and their families necessary support to navigate their cancer journey.

Any emerging industry trends?
A cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment dramatically impact the lives of patients and their families. Every patient presents with variations that shape the course of their cancer, and there is no one-size-fits-all cure for this multifaceted disease. To adequately tackle their diagnosis, most patients will require a personalized combination of treatments, which may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and sometimes more targeted options; such as immunotherapy or hormone therapy. For eligible patients, clinical trials may present additional opportunities to address their cancer. Advancement in treatment options requires patient and family members to receive more psychosocial and financial support programs.

Also, unfortunately, the facilities, resources, and expertise needed to manage the complexity of cancer simply do not exist in many small communities in the US, necessitating patients to travel to major cancer centers for their care. These larger centers have access to cutting-edge equipment and use up-to-date protocols, in line with the highest standard of cancer care. The requirement for travel as well as limited hospital housing options can be prohibitive for many patients. In particular, the high cost of temporary housing can be a barrier to receiving treatment. This added expense prevents some patients from seeking treatment during the early stages of disease, a delay that can have serious consequences. While early stage cancers have a high probability of responding to treatment, late stages cancers often present little recourse other than palliative care. Traveling to major cancer centers for treatment has become much more commonplace and therefore requires transportation and housing funding. This need is getting more attention through such programs as Airbnb Open Homes Medical Stays with the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation. Though Open Homes Medical Stays is helping solve a critical temporary housing problem for many patients and families, it cannot meet the tremendous need of all patients and families throughout the country.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

Recognizing the need for additional and more flexible housing options for patients, BMCF partnered with Airbnb’s Open Homes Medical Stays program to offer extended housing stays for patients and their families. Patients who meet the eligibility criteria (e.g. - Live >30 miles from treatment center, have a household income <$75,000, etc.) are referred by their physician or social worker, and BMCF’s patient coordinators and housing assistance team book a home geographically close to the treatment center. Through this service, there is no wait list for housing, and eligible patients travel to their treatment center with the assurance that housing is available for them.

Since February 2019, BMCF has helped over 600 patients and families obtain temporary housing. The length of the average stay, 14 days, has been invaluable for patients, allowing them to complete their treatment courses and recuperate near the care center, surrounded by their families. If complications arise, this proximity to the hospital is especially crucial. This partnership with Airbnb’s Open Homes is a huge opportunity to transform the housing options for patients, but the challenge is that the number of applications far exceeds the funding that we currently have. For example, to house a patient and their family near New York City cancer centers, it costs approximately $1,500 for 7 days and $2,500 for 14 days.

To continue offering extended stays for patients and their families, a valuable service not available through other organizations, we are working on securing additional funds to support this program. We are in search of new partners who’d like to expand their support for cancer patients, and therefore, their housing options while receiving treatments.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

Patients and families are my inspiration. Our goals at the BMCF are to expand and offer new programs to meet the needs of patients and raise much needed funding for our programs.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

The Patient Housing initiative with Airbnb has already had a transformative effect on cancer patients, enabling them to receive state-of-the-art treatments at the best cancer centers in the US and alleviating the stress of not being able to receive these life-saving treatments because of a lack of affordable, short term housing. Over time, we expect this program to impact treatment outcomes by allowing physicians to start therapy or procedures earlier, secure in the knowledge that their patients will have housing available, without delay and for the duration of the treatment protocol. Support for this initiative will also benefit hospital partners by helping to improve patient compliance and overall satisfaction. With new partners, we hope to sustain and grow this important program, which provides a much-needed service and positively impacts the cancer community in the US.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

This year, a key initiative of the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation has been to launch its partnership with Airbnb’s Open Homes Medical Stays. This initiative provides free temporary accommodations to patients diagnosed and being treated for any type of cancer or undergoing a hematopoietic stem cell transplant, as well as housing for caregivers, family members, and donors. Too often, the cost of temporary accommodations can be a huge barrier for patients seeking or receiving treatment. This initiative has already relieved and will continue to relieve a tremendous burden for patients and families who must travel for life-saving treatment, thereby allowing them to go to the best cancer centers and focus on their recovery. The Open Homes community provides a free and welcoming space for people that need to travel to a cancer center.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

Each month, the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation receives a minimum of 300 applications from patients and families for financial support for expenses associated with treatment. Unfortunately, however, our current budget only allows us to respond positively to 68% of applicants.

In order to meet the growing need for our support, we are actively seeking funding from individuals, foundations and corporations who share our commitment to providing financial support to children and adults before, during and after their treatment. Lack of funding is our biggest obstacle, and it pains me to turn away patients faced with a cancer diagnosis and in need of support due to a limited budget.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

A patient diagnosed with cancer, who needs our services, can utilize all our programs at the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation and receive support as needed.

How do you motivate others?

Sharing patient stories are so impactful and encourages others to help us with our important mission.

What do I do best?

At the end of the day, I am an advocate and a problem solver. I will campaign for my patients and their families and do whatever it takes to get the funds they need for their treatments. There are so many obstacles when one receives a diagnosis like cancer, and I am continuously working to provide programs and develop initiatives that will serve their needs best.

What makes me the best version of myself?

Compassion is a necessary quality for my work. Having compassion for the struggles and heartache of others drives me each day to work harder for our mission.

What are my aspirations?

My business aspirations are to raise millions of dollars for patient care and grow the BMCF much larger. Cancer does not discriminate, and it is estimated that there will be 1,762,450 new cancer cases diagnosed in 2019. Our patient programs and services require much more funding in order to meet the needs of these newly diagnosed patients.

My Biggest Success?

Founding the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation and having four sons!

My Motto?

If you don't go after what you want, you'll never have it. If you don't ask, the answer is always no. If you don't step forward, you're always in the same place.”

My Favorite Products/Objects?

Lypo-Spheric Vitamin C, the Richway Amethyst BioMat and Sonic Handheld Percussion Massage Gun!

A Day in My Life:

What do you love most about Your City?

Buzzing Energy

Sense of Opportunity

Nation’s top physicians

Constantly meeting new people

Food and culture

Favorite breakfast meal & restaurant?

Four Seasons Hotel Breakfast

Candle 79

ABC Vegan

What are you doing at:

6:00 AM – Peloton

10:00 AM – At my desk

12:00 PM - Favorite Lunch spot/meal? At my desk

7:00 PM - home with my boys

11:00 PM - working

What drink do you need to get through the day and at the end (and how many)?

Green tea with honey

Most used App/Favorite Instagram Account?

Uber

What should everyone try at least once?

Run or walk the NYC Marathon

Where do you enjoy getting lost?

Running in the country