Marley's New Swing
A twelve-year-old's golf dream made possible by bone marrow donor sister.
Immediately after watching “The Short Game,” a documentary about elite 7-year-old golfers descending on the world-famous Pinehurst Golf Course to determine the next world champion, Marley Franklin declared, “I’m going to make it to Pinehurst one day.”
At that point, Marley had little experience as a golfer; but after two years of intense practice, at age 10, she received her invitation to play in the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in Pinehurst, North Carolina. By this time, she had already won six out of seven tournaments and was named 2014’s Player of the Year by the Los Angeles tour of the U.S. Kids Golf Organization.
Fast-forward two years and Marley’s competitive fire is still burning strong.
“She just competed in the Optimist Junior Golf Tournament and won first place, which qualified her for the Junior Golf Championship,” says Tirzah Franklin, Marley’s mother. “She also qualified to play on the Southern California PGA Toyota Tour Cup Series, a tournament that features the best junior golfers in Southern California, and placed first.”
But things weren’t always as easy as her swing.
Marley, now 12, was diagnosed with sickle cell disease at birth—a painful and hereditary condition in which the red blood cells are abnormally shaped like crescents. The sickle cells are stiff and sticky and tend to block the flow of blood and oxygen in blood vessels of the limbs and organs, causing pain and organ damage.
“I used to have headaches that wouldn’t be like normal headaches,” Marley says.
Tirzah helps explain: “Marley would just scream from the discomfort.”
On top of her condition, the New Orleans native and her family had to leave everything behind due to Hurricane Katrina. “We left in the middle of the night to Dallas,” says Tirzah. “We packed for only a few days thinking we were coming back home.”
Unfortunately, going back home was no longer an option and the family moved to Los Angeles, where they found the Children's Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Neena Kapoor, MD, director of CHLA’s Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program, was able to help Marley manage her sickle cell pain. But after six years, her condition was not improving—she needed another alternative.
A sister’s gift
In 2010, Marley welcomed her new baby sister, Maya. She was excited for all the new joys her sister would bring, but Maya would also have an unexpected gift for Marley.
“Marley started having weekly blood transfusions,” says Tirzah. “Also, her cranial doppler ultrasounds revealed that there was a high chance of a stroke. … So, when Maya was born, I had her cord blood banked and asked the doctors what our options were for Marley. They suggested testing the girls to see if they would be a match for a bone marrow donation.”
Bone marrow is the substance that produces red blood cells and in Marley’s case, her bone marrow was producing cells with defective hemoglobin S. By receiving a bone marrow transplant—the only available cure—Marley’s body would be able to start producing normal hemoglobin.
After intensive testing, Maya proved to be a 98 percent match for Marley, and became her sister’s lifesaving donor at the tender age of 1.
“Bone marrow is a wonderful organ,” says Kapoor. “It is like wild grass; you remove some if it and before you know, it is growing again. There is no permanent loss for the donor, but they are giving a chance of life for the potential recipient.”
A chance at life is a perfect way to describe it as Marley would have never been able to refine her skills in a sport like golf, let alone participate, if it wasn’t for her bone marrow donor.
“Golf helped her get outside after a year of recovering from her transplant,” says Marley’s father, Jamar Franklin. “It helped her get her strength back in an easier and less intrusive way. It has also allowed our family to focus on something other than her disease.”
Currently, Marley has no medical issues and Kapoor says that she is cured of sickle cell disease and all associated problems. However, she still comes to CHLA once a year for follow-up appointments.
Without the pain, Marley can now completely focus on golf. She aspires to be a top female golfer and is following in the footsteps of her favorites, Lydia Ko and Stacey Lewis. Maya, 6, who has also found a love for golf, looks up to her favorite golfer: her big sister.