UNC Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant nurse coordinators meet Robin Roberts on the set of Good Morning America

When Debbie Covington, RN, and Pat Odell, RN, went to New York City recently, they carried with them a sign of gratitude to Robin Roberts for all she’s done for bone marrow transplant recipients. They hoped the sign would be on television—they got a lot more than that.

UNC Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant nurse coordinators meet Robin Roberts on the set of Good Morning America click to enlarge Odell and Coving, to the left of Roberts, pose with the sign.
UNC Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant nurse coordinators meet Robin Roberts on the set of Good Morning America click to enlarge From left to right: Roberts, Odell, Elliot, Covington, Champion

by Zach Read - zread@unch.unc.edu

When Debbie Covington, RN, and Pat Odell, RN, nurse coordinators in the Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Program, planned their New York City trip last summer, they looked forward to seeing the city’s famous landmarks. Their agenda included going to the Empire State Building and paying tribute at the 9/11 Memorial, among other activities.

But as they planned their trip, the transplant coordinators added an interesting wrinkle to it. Longtime fans of Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, the two have gained additional respect and affection for her during her battle with myelodysplastic syndrome and the related-donor transplant she underwent last year. To thank her for all she’s meant to their patients, they decided to make a large sign that read, “UNC Bone Marrow Transplant Program Loves Robin!!” They had the sign signed by the entire bone marrow and stem cell transplant team at UNC and took it with them to the exterior of the Good Morning America set.

Their goal was to get the poster on television. They achieved that goal and then some. A cameraman who attended UNC saw the sign through the windows of the set and pointed it out to Roberts. The next thing they knew they were whisked into the studio, through metal detectors and past bomb-sniffing dogs, to meet Roberts and watch the entire show from inside the studio, on the set.

Roberts was incredibly touched by the sentiment from Covington and Odell and from the entire UNC team—so much so that before Covington and Odell left after the show, they gave Roberts the sign, and today the sign sits in her dressing room to remind her of all the support she has and the people she’s touched.

It’s rare that Roberts takes gifts—if she accepted even half of what fans wanted her to have, she wouldn’t be able to enter her dressing room.

“The security person said that we are very lucky—she never takes anything,” said Odell. “We felt very fortunate.”

As nursing coordinators in the bone marrow and stem cell transplant program, Covington and Odell work closely with patients and families throughout the transplant process. How much Roberts means to so many cannot be overstated.

“We love her and our patients love her,” said Covington. “She has done so much to help them. Patients come in and talk to you about Robin Roberts—‘Robin this and Robin that.’ Even the doctors know who they’re talking about because she has a blog that so many people read.”

Covington has worked at UNC Hospitals for 21 years and Odell for 17 years. This experience ranks among their most memorable, and it gives them added energy to continue the rewarding work they’re doing. Previously they worked in organ transplants, but they’ve found that the patients in oncology, oncology as a specialty, and the work of transplant coordinators are particularly special. It means the world to them that Roberts understands exactly what coordinators do.

“When we told her we were transplant coordinators, she said, ‘Oh, my gosh! I know exactly what you do!’” said Covington. “She had a coordinator in New York who makes sure that everything that has to be done gets done. And that’s what we do.”

Transplant coordinators are with patients throughout the entire transplant process, and they are leaned on by patients who try to understand their situation at every stage.

“We’re really at the center of it for them,” said Odell.

And thanks to Covington and Odell, last week Roberts was at the center of the UNC Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Program, comforting patients once again.

Information on the UNC Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Program can be found here.