All around the world, blood brothers and blood sisters may not even know each other.
These are the bone marrow donors and the cancer patients whose lives they saved. Many wish to remain anonymous. Some are oceans apart, and although they might correspond, they will never see each other.
I had the good luck to meet my donor, and the motivations she shared with me open a window to the reasons why others are bone marrow donors.
But first, a step back.
Transplant coordinators let you correspond anonymously with your donor up until the first year, when names are exchanged if the donors want it. Before that, they monitor mail carefully and cut out or black out any hints that could identify each other. Obviously, they don’t want attachments to form during the first year when the worst has the highest chance of happening.
I wrote my donor on a special note card that was a copy of a painting of flowers. The artist, my mother, had signed her name at the bottom. The transplant people cut her name out. Meanwhile, my donor sent me a necklace. She wrote that she liked crafts and gardening.
I actually had two donors. My first was a man in his 50s, a father of one, living in the Midwest. Six months after that transplant, I had graft failure, a term meaning that the donor had packed his bags and left. I hadn’t relapsed, but my bone marrow was basically empty.
I was hospitalized in Boston until they could rev up my immune system. My doctor said the donor was a good match and the graft failure was a fluke. The man agreed to donate again. After another round of chemotherapy, I got his cells again. Six months after that, I relapsed.
Basically, I thought that was the end. But in New Jersey, (some four hours from my home in Massachusetts), a woman had volunteered to try to save me. Through an instance of only one degree separating us, Denise happened to live near a good friend of mine. They were in the same book group.
My friend Tamar went with me about two years ago when I had coffee with Denise outside of Philadelphia.
I was excited and apprehensive. She’s a little thing, an effusive talker, Jewish like me, and about the same age. She has two children, a job as a bookkeeper, and a busy life with her husband and two children. We posed for a picture. I tower over her physically, but not as a person.
It turned out that Denise thanked me.
“I thought about the dramatic ways someone could save a life, like a firefighter running into a burning building,” she told me. “Stem-cell donation was something that a lot of people could do.”
Donation involved a month-long process. First, she would have a long phone interview, fill out a health history, and get blood tests and a complete medical exam.
The terms bone marrow transplant and stem cell transplant are synonymous. Most transplants these days involve using stem cells, the undifferentiated cells that can develop into the more than 200 types of cells in an adult body.
The month would culminate with a week of shots to raise the number of stem cells in her blood, followed by a process called apheresis. Blood is removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the stem cells. Then, the remaining blood is returned through the other arm. It takes about six hours. The donor can return to normal activity in less than a week.
“This is one of the most profound things that has ever happened to me,” she had e-mailed her daughter. “A chance to really life my beliefs.”
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