Morgan Bjarno was a sophomore in high school when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a fast-growing type of blood cancer that tried to de-rail her high school career.
It was April 2013 when Morgan received her diagnosis at Connecticut Children’s, where she underwent two years of cancer treatment. It was during her junior year that Morgan met Jill Gelfenbien, a math teacher at Glastonbury High School, who played a pivotal role in getting her back on track with her studies.
“Jill was my math teacher during my junior year in high school, and she also tutored me during the summer after my junior year because I had missed so much during school due to my illness,” Morgan said.
It was during that time that Morgan met Jill’s children, Jenna and James Laufer, who were inspired to help kids like Morgan undergoing cancer treatment at Connecticut Children’s by raising money through their “J&J’s Lemonade Stand.” With support from their community and the Create Your Own Fundraiser program offered by Connecticut Children’s Medical Center Foundation, the stand has raised more than $22,000 for Connecticut Children’s over seven summers.
“I was so touched when I first heard about how they wanted to donate the funds from their lemonade stand to Connecticut Children’s in honor of me,” Morgan said.
An Inspiration to Others
While J&J’s Lemonade Stand has shown what an entrepreneurial and caring spirit can do for hard-working children who want to help others, Morgan has also been an inspiration to other patients battling cancer and blood disorders at Connecticut Children’s.
After graduating from Glastonbury High School in 2015, Morgan finished her treatment in July of that same year, and went on to major in Health Policy & Management and Business Studies at Providence College in Rhode Island. Morgan, who will be 23 in August, graduated from Providence College in 2019 and is now working at Willis Towers Watson in Hartford as an analyst on the Hartford Brokerage and Advisory Team.
In addition to her new job, Morgan also serves on the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Advisory Council at Connecticut Children’s. “I have been a member for a little less than a year, as the group was only formed this past summer,” said Morgan, who continues to see her hematologist/oncologist, Donna Boruchov, MD, for follow-up visits once a year.
“Being a member of the AYA Advisory Council has given me the opportunity to use the knowledge I gained from going through treatment as a teenager to help other adolescents who are also facing a cancer diagnosis,” she said. “It’s also great to see the nurses I became so close to during my treatments; all of the staff in the Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders and on the inpatient oncology floor are awesome,” she added.
Words of Wisdom for AYA Patients
As a cancer survivor and a member of the AYA Advisory Council, Morgan has some words of advice for AYA patients newly diagnosed with cancer: “Don’t be afraid to recognize that although you are experiencing many changes, some of those changes may actually be positive, and it’s important to hang on to those positive elements of treatment to help you through the tough times you’re experiencing,” Morgan said.
“Looking back on my experience, I had a lot of very tough days/weeks, but I do feel that there were several positive aspects of my cancer treatment, including the people I met and the positive outlook I gained on life,” said Morgan, who (pre-COVID-19 sheltering in place), enjoyed traveling and spending time with family and friends.
“I think every cancer survivor finds a ‘new normal,’ for sure,” Morgan said. “For me, it means not taking things for granted in life and being more sensitive to those who are experiencing hardship. I know how much it meant to me when people reached out and showed up for me during my toughest days, and I want to be able to show up for the people I care about as well.”
To learn more about creating your own fundraiser in support of world-class patient care at Connecticut Children’s, go to connecticutchildrensfoundation.org/host.