Ava Hanlon has been interested in medicine since she was a child. Now she hopes to combine her love of science and her passion for helping others by becoming a pediatric oncologist.
I think I always knew my calling was in the medical field. As a child, while other kids watched cartoons I was glued to the Discovery Channel—I’d call my grandmother to eagerly talk about a procedure I had just seen.
I found science and medicine to be endlessly fascinating, curiosities that were nurtured in the classroom and further stoked when our town in Long Island rallied around a young boy who had cancer. I didn’t know him but I was drawn to his story—the type of cancer, the treatments and the research to find a cure.
I was 18 when cancer hit nearer to home for me through a close family friend. Up until that moment everything about medicine was purely academic, something only thought about in the abstract. Olivia changed all of that.
Even with a seven-year age difference, Olivia and I connected through our twin bond – she has a twin sister, and I have a twin brother. Being a twin always invites the same questions from people—can we read each other’s minds or feel each other’s pain?
I was in my family kitchen when Olivia’s aunt texted me in February of that year. Olivia had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, or AML. I immediately jumped back into academic mode, researching everything I could find on AML. Now, the twin questions were mine—would a twin be a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant? What makes one twin fall ill and not the other?
As Olivia continued treatment, including a bone marrow transplant, I started my freshman year at Marist College. I hit the books yet felt a tug at my heart. I needed to feel like I was making a difference now, not years down the road as a doctor or researcher.
A friend told me about Up ’Til Dawn, the annual fundraising event that connects college students around the nation to the mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Like the name suggests, students stay up all night, a testament to the sleepless nights parents face when they have a child with cancer.
I joined right away, and in the first year I was the top Up ’Til Dawn fundraiser at Marist. For me, it was confirmation I was on the right path by merging my head and my heart. I could talk scientific facts all day long but it was my compassion for the families at St. Jude and my passion to help them truly pulling supporters to the cause.
Olivia, who had become my video chat buddy while I was away at college, passed away before the start of my sophomore year. Losing Olivia was a defining moment for me, and I began to dig deeper into my faith as well as my studies. What happens when you lose your twin, I wondered?
I also became the strategy director for Up ’Til Dawn at Marist, responsible for recruitment and fundraising. Did I mention this event is entirely student-led? Our team created a strategy to reach even more students than before, using new tactics to reach the 6,000-plus students on our campus. We “stormed the dorm” to recruit freshman and attended every orientation to share the St. Jude mission. The approach worked—by the time I became executive director my senior year, we had nearly doubled the number of students at Marist participating, and Marist was celebrated as the top recruiting school in the country for Up ’Til Dawn participants.
Olivia continued to inspire me throughout my college years and was the catalyst for me becoming a biomedical science major. Then I had an experience that drove everything home for me: I attended the St. Jude Collegiate Leadership Seminar. Suddenly, it all fell into place, the hours spent poring over medical articles as an Honors Program student, the Up ‘Til Dawn events I rallied Marist students to take part in, the lasting memory of Olivia and the thoughts of those she left behind, including her twin sister.
At St. Jude, I saw families amid the most challenging moments of their lives given care beyond measure, love with no conditions and a whole lot of hope.
It is Olivia’s middle name, and it is also why I am more committed than ever to helping find a cure for childhood cancer. I keep Olivia’s prayer card with me wherever I go as a reminder of my why.
Olivia showed me how to lead with my head and my heart to help cure childhood cancer.