Olympic champion Ryan Murphy, Tom Coughlin Jay Fund team up for young cancer patients

Clayton Freeman
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Florida Times-Union

Like tens of thousands of other Americans, Ryan Murphy was switching on his Zoom call.

It was a spring day in what was supposed to be an Olympic year for the three-time gold medalist, but the Bolles School graduate wasn't reaching a coach or a trainer at the other end of his connection.

Instead, this time, he was speaking to a young cancer patient, part of a remote meeting set up through the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund.

"How are you doing with all the craziness?" he asks.

Bella — the organization did not disclose her full name due to privacy policies — was listening from her home in Jacksonville.

"Yeah, I'm doing good," she said.

The coronavirus pandemic is changing the way the world runs, but it isn't stopping the Jay Fund — with help from contributors like champion swimmer Murphy — from helping to brighten the lives of young cancer patients and their families.

The organization, established in 1996 in honor of former Boston College safety Jay McGillis, assists with financial, emotional and practical support to help families tackle childhood cancer both in Jacksonville and the New York/New Jersey area, where Tom Coughlin coached the NFL's Jaguars and New York Giants.

Keli Coughlin, the fund's executive director and the daughter of the former coach, said the pandemic has exacerbated those families' needs.

Some parents, she said, have suffered layoffs or furloughs connected to the sharp economic decline, while others have had to leave their jobs to assume the tasks of caregivers.

The economic pain is severe. Now, they're also contending with fears of a virus that has prompted lockdowns around the world and inflicted, in some locations, widespread loss of life — for New York and New Jersey, more than 30,000 combined deaths, as compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

"These kids have depressed immune systems often because of cancer treatment," she said. "They're highly concerned about being exposed to COVID-19. The anxiety of these families is at an extreme compared to the average person.

"So we're trying to reach out and let them know we're here."

Coughlin said that compared to the same period in 2019, requests to the organization for assistance have increased 55 percent this year.

Although COVID-19 precautions are restricting direct contact with children as they battle the disease, the Jay Fund is finding new ways to reach them.

Technology is part of the solution.

"Normally we do a lot of events — support groups, parties, hospital visits," Keli Coughlin said. "So we've had to pivot to some of these really fun virtual things."

So far, she said, adapting to those new challenges is going well.

• Baking classes for children and their families conducted over Zoom, the online meeting platform.

• Virtual meet-ups for patients' moms — Coughlin called them "Wind Down Wednesdays" — to share their experiences.

• Face-to-face remote meetings for children with stars like Murphy. The swimmer conducted a series of Zoom chats with kids in both Jacksonville and the New York area.

For this meeting, Bella was upbeat and chatty in spite of her illness, not star-struck by the chance to talk with a genuine Olympian.

"I was always the quiet kid," Murphy told her. "I would've just been like sitting on the other end of this line [silently] ... young me would just not be talking."

It's the same mission, with a new method.

For Murphy, who smashed the world 100-meter backstroke record and captured three gold medals representing the United States at the Olympics four years ago in Rio de Janeiro, this isn't the first time he has worked alongside the Jay Fund.

In 2018, Murphy joined Tom Coughlin for a round of visits for cancer patients at Wolfson Children's Hospital.

"He's a real natural at connecting with people, and the kids loved it," Keli Coughlin said.

Murphy's quest to defend Olympic gold is on pause for now, after Tokyo organizers last month postponed the scheduled 2020 Games until 2021.

Soon after the IOC's decision, Coughlin said, the organization approached Murphy about the possibility of connecting with young cancer patients again, this time from a distance because of the social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

The swimmer, who had been training in California, welcomed the opportunity.

Some of the conversations with children in Jacksonville and New York, Coughlin said, have approached 45 minutes long.

Murphy talked with Bella about how she's handling treatment, asked about her family ("Eight brothers and sisters? Holy cow!" he said) and took time to wish her a happy birthday.

"When all of the quarantine is over, you're going to have to throw a nice little birthday party," he said.

Murphy isn't the only sports figure joining the Jay Fund's mission. Among others, former Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich, himself a cancer survivor, participated in a similar long-distance event over Instagram Live. Writer Peter King and broadcaster Andrea Kremer have also taken part in Jay Fund events with children fighting cancer.

"This lets them know they're not fighting this alone," Coughlin said. "There's a lot of people rooting for them."

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