Part of the Family
It was the Sunday before elven-year-old Jennifer Marshall was to start middle school. She had been running a fever and not feeling well the week prior, so her mother Ginny Marshall decided to take Jennifer to their local emergency room in Blacksburg, VA.
“I remember suspecting an ear infection,” Ginny says. “After doing some bloodwork, the doctors told me to take Jennifer to UVA Children’s Hospital immediately—and pack a bag for at least a ten-day stay. My heart dropped.”
Kim Dunsmore, MD, met Ginny and her husband Steve minutes after they arrived at UVA and talked them through Jennifer’s diagnosis—acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL.
“Kim told us, ‘We’re going to get to know each other really well,’” Ginny says. “She asked us questions about Jennifer and her siblings, Danielle and Aaron. We realized we had just met a very special doctor, and Kim quickly became a part of our family.”
For the next three years, Jennifer and her family were in and out of UVA Children’s Hospital until her treatment ended in March of 1999.
“The care we received at UVA Children’s Hospital was so personal,” Steve says. “We were always asked how all of our children were doing, not just Jennifer. That was so important to us, because a disease like cancer becomes a family disease. Everyone is so involved, and every family member is changed forever because of it.”
After seeing a news story about a Boston family who started a fund for their local children’s hospital, Ginny and Steve thought, “Why not us?” Soon after, the Jennifer Fund was created.
“Through their organization, the Marshalls want to help other families and give back to the research and care that helped save their daughter’s life,” Dunsmore says.
The Jennifer Fund quickly became an organization that both the Blacksburg and Charlottesville communities rallied behind.
“We had casino nights, a car auction, a car wash,” Steve says. “One of my favorite memories is the Jennifer Fund car, a professional sports car covered with digitalized, glow-in-the-dark handprints from patients at UVA Children’s Hospital.”
Part of the organization’s success is the Jennifer Fund Golf Tournament, held annually since its creation in 1997 by the Marshalls’ good friend, Ronnie Thompson. The year Thompson passed away from leukemia, the golf tournament raised enough funds to name a room in the Battle Building at UVA Children’s Hospital after him.
“Last year, we got a call that the fund had hit the million-dollar mark,” Ginny says. “We started with $20 here and there, and every bit has made a difference. To reach one million is incredible.”
The Jennifer Fund’s most recent initiative is a $120,000 pledge to fund a pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship on Dunsmore’s team.
“Kim wants to have the best cancer program for children in Virginia, a goal that includes various puzzle pieces,” Ginny explains. “A fellow is the last piece of that puzzle.”
Along with learning to take care of patients and families, the fellow will research immunotherapy, a type of treatment that uses the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer.
“The Marshalls’ support has been invaluable,” Dunsmore emphasizes. “But it’s not just the dollar support, it’s the actual support from the family. They help us to understand and remember why we do the work we do.”
Steve and Ginny will always consider Dunsmore one of the family, a sentiment poignantly expressed by Jennifer in middle school when asked in a middle school written assignment to describe the best day and worst day of her life.
“She wrote that those days for her were one and the same—the day she was diagnosed with ALL,” Steve says. “It was the worst day of her life for obvious reasons. It was also the best day of her life, she wrote, because of the friends she made at UVA Children’s Hospital, because she met Kim for the first time, and because of how close her family became.”