Every weekday morning, Joanne Goerler boarded the ferry near her home in Cutchogue to start her 90-minute, southbound commute to the John M. Marshall Elementary School in East Hampton, where she was a fixture in the classroom for over three decades.
At the end of the day, she took the ferry once more — a ritual that allowed her to decompress, one that she grew to love.
In 2018, she bid it farewell.
At age 53, Ms. Goerler was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a blood cancer that prevents cells in the bone marrow from maturing. Last fall, a year after receiving the transplant that saved her life, she found herself alive and well, and waiting on a different ferry — except, this time, she was standing on solid ground and a virtual stranger was riding the high seas.
That stranger became family the moment Ms. Goerler finally wrapped her arms around the woman — her donor, Beatrice Rodriguez, a Brazilian immigrant who lived in Massachusetts — as her parents, in-laws and five siblings looked on.
“It was pretty amazing. It was very emotional. We had FaceTimed and we had been calling and texting, and all of that, but to actually have her there in person was pretty amazing,” she said. “It was pretty amazing.”
In honor of Ms. Goerler, who retired this past January and is in remission, the elementary school will host a “Be the Match” bone marrow swab event — similar to the one that registered Ms. Rodriguez into the national donor program — on Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. Anyone between the ages 18 and 44 is eligible to enter the registry.
“I think it’s pretty amazing. I’m honored that they’re doing it in my name,” Ms. Goerler said. “I’m hoping that it yields at least one match. Somebody could save somebody else’s life. Just one match would be, hopefully, the ideal outcome.”
When routine bloodwork revealed her nefarious diagnosis, Ms. Goerler was referred to the Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, where her team immediately swabbed her for the donor registry. By her next appointment, there was already a list of potential donors for a transplant — which, her doctor said, was the only option.
After discussing the procedure, Ms. Goerler’s husband, Ron, asked, “What if we don’t do anything?”
“Well,” the doctor said, “she’s gonna die.”
Reliving the memory, Ms. Goerler took a deep breath.
“I look at my husband and he’s got tears in his eyes, and I look at the doctor and she’s got tears in her eyes, and it was like, ‘Wow, this is a big deal here,’” she said. “It was gut-wrenching. Faced with your own mortality, there’s no option but to charge forward, right?”
While waiting to find a donor, she underwent five months of chemotherapy to prepare her blood, but when her cells stopped responding to the treatment, her medical team decided it was time. Five days before her transplant, she got the call: They had a match for 11 of her 12 markers, with 10 being the minimum.
Ms. Goerler, who is of Polish descent, said she was shocked to learn that her donor was Brazilian and not much older than she — especially after being told that an ideal match would be a 21-year-old male of similar heritage.
“There is no rhyme or reason,” Ms. Goerler said with a light laugh.
Prior to her transplant, Ms. Goerler underwent intense chemotherapy, followed by one day of rest, in September 2019. At the same time, Ms. Rodriguez received injections to stimulate cell growth — 22 years after registering at a bone marrow drive to see if she was a match for a young girl in her own community.
When she learned she could help Ms. Goerler, she didn’t hesitate — keeping good on her promise, even for another life.
“The transplant itself, by the time they infused the cells, it only took 11 minutes. I was hooked up to an IV and in they went,” Ms. Goerler said. “We had the chaplain at the hospital say a prayer over the bags so that we were off to a good start.”
During her year-long recovery — “I think I had just about every complication there was going to be,” she explained, including two bouts with graft versus host disease, diabetes and a pulmonary embolism — the elementary school community banded together, according to Laura Rosner, who co-taught with Ms. Goerler in their integrated first-grade classroom.
“I think we were all shocked by the diagnosis. Joanne was very healthy and active being a teacher,” Ms. Rosner said. “She was definitely well-respected and seen as a role model teacher, a mentor to many — both officially and unofficially. She really was loved and missed a lot. It was sadness and shock, and I would say that the staff really rallied around her in support.”
At school, teachers sported matching “Super Goerler” bracelets, and would surprise their co-worker by texting her “Hands in!” photos while wearing them. “It was really a rally of love and support for her, from the very beginning,” Ms. Rosner said.
The contactless “Be the Match” event is only a continuation of that effort, she explained. On Saturday afternoon, volunteers who speak both English and Spanish will direct participants to register on their phones before bringing a swab kit to their car window. They will then swab their own cheeks and put it back in the kit, which is entered into the national registry.
The whole process takes no more than 10 minutes, Ms. Rosner said.
“There’s a need right now for minority and different ethnicities to register in the system because, typically, Caucasians have a much easier time finding a match. So we’re hoping, with our growing and changing community, that this will help other people in need,” she said. “We also know there are local Riverhead-area people who are waiting for a match, so it can happen to people in our community. It’s not like, ‘Oh, it could never happen here,’ kind of attitude anymore.”
Ms. Goerler is living proof of that. These days, she keeps herself busy by working at Jamesport Vineyards, which her family owns, and is consistently feeling more and more like herself.
“Don’t take your health for granted,” she said. “There’s so many opportunities for people to give back to people in need. I think the world would be a better place of people put themselves out there help people that needed it.”