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A Donor’s Story

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By: M. R. Sonntag

Graham Greene wrote, “There is always one moment in childhood when a door opens and lets the future in.”  That moment, for me, came when I was ten years old and in fourth grade at a local Catholic school. On that particular day, we had a substitute teacher.

Mrs. O’Reilly was a wonderful woman and a great teacher.  I liked her more than our regular teacher. In religion class she told the story of the first bone marrow procedure and how a stranger saved a young girl’s life.  That is how I learned what bone marrow is. I was so touched by the story I said if I could ever do such a thing for someone else, I would. I never forgot the promise I made to myself, and simply put it in the back recesses of my mind as I went on with the day-to-day activities of life. The years passed, until sadly, in 1993, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Her death less than six months later was the primary reason I joined the Registry.

Nine years later, in 2002, I received a call saying I was an initial match for a 28-year old with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. It was both wonderful and somewhat daunting. Blood samples were taken at my local hospital for testing.  I was told it could take up to three months to find out if I were the match selected. On Memorial Day weekend, I was told I was The match! At that time, I also learned that the preferred method of stem cell/bone marrow collection (based on the patient’s needs) was surgery. I did research on the two ways of donating marrow and the centers that perform donations. I also realized that the year I was in fourth grade was also the year my marrow recipient was born!

Next, the New England Marrow Donor Program (Be The Match) set up an appointment with the facility I had chosen for donation for me to have a full physical.  An appointment was also arranged at a local hospital for me to “bank” a pint of blood for myself for after surgery. I also discussed any concerns and questions I had with my primary care physician.  All along the way, the Be The Match people answered my questions and checked to ensure I was still ready to go through with the surgery. Their website (bethematch.org) is a fountain of information for patients and donors alike, and I found it to be very helpful. The initial surgery date was my Mom’s birthday, which I took as another positive sign that this whole process was meant to be.  However, the surgery, though, was postponed a week because of the patient’s health.

On July 18, 2002, I went with my sister Peg and my friend Christine as support, to UMass Memorial in Worcester, Massachusetts, for the surgery. I was met by a wonderful Be The Match/National Bone Marrow Donor Program/Red Cross liaison.  If you are wondering about the surgery, I can say it is not as bad as you might think. I was told that in two days I would feel much better, and I did. I did feel quite tired for two days. The hospital kept me overnight as a precaution because that was their policy.  All the nurses and doctors were extremely professional and very nice. I was told I may have some soreness, as if I had been ice skating, fell, and landed on my tailbone. For me, that’s exactly how it was. Two days later, I was back to my usual routine. Interestingly, about a year later, I came up as a preliminary match for another patient in need.  However, a closer match was found.

Had I not paid attention in class when I had a substitute teacher in fourth grade, had my Mom not died of cancer, my own story would have been much different. The beginnings of a specific plan for marrow donation were set in motion with Mrs. O’Reilly’s story that day.  How blessed I am that the right door opened and my future was let in.

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