In 2010, a Fedex urgent letter arrived at my door. It was the evening of our oldest daughter’s college graduation and my house was already bustling with excitement. Early in the evening, I called the number in the letter. I didn’t think I would reach anyone late in the day, but I did. She was a wonderful, compassionate woman and understood my over-the-top joy at learning I was a match. She told me the transplant was for a three-year-old boy with leukemia. I had been the owner of a day-care venture for over 20 years at this point. I had had three-year-olds in my care running through my home everyday. This child’s situation really hit me even more. Immediately, I said “Yes”.
The next one to two weeks were consumed with paperwork, three to four visits to the lab, a psychological interview and a medical check-up. All of these were completed and I was ready to go in just 40 days from when the letter came.
I have to admit when the car service came to pick up my husband and me to take us to New York City the night before the procedure, I was nervous. Not in a bad way – I just couldn’t stop thinking about that little boy and his family. I know how patients and their families have to be prepared before receiving a transplant; and, with all my heart, I didn’t want this family to worry. I wanted them to know that I’m here and we’re all on our way.
The next morning I was scheduled to be in the operating room by 7:30 a.m. Something else I was feeling was almost like tunnel vision. While waiting to go into pre-op, we were in the holding area with many other patients; some were chatting and reading magazines. I just held tight and waited to be called. I didn’t want to relax; I didn’t want to take my thoughts away from what was happening. Then I saw the man with the hand-held cooler, he was at the nurses’ station. He and the nurse looked at me. He knew that I understood why he was there. That was a very surreal moment for me – the first of many.
The surgery went perfectly. They took what they needed from my right hip. In recovery, I felt like “a million bucks.” The staff was remarkable in every way. The next three days I took it easy around the house with only the slightest discomfort. The feeling you get in your heart overrides the pain – I promise.
I thought about the child and his family almost every day, always wondering how he was doing. Then in early fall I received a call that a second transplant was requested. Sometimes this happens and every case is different. This time they went with a stem cell transplant, a little different from the first time. I had blood work done again and we were ready in less than two weeks. Another trip to New York City and we were ready. To be a donor once is incredible, but to be a donor twice, unimaginable. I just wanted so much for this family to know that I’m here for them and am ready again. The morning of the procedure we stopped in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a massive, beautiful church just a few blocks from the hospital. I wanted to light a candle for this child and his family. Another surreal moment, just walking in there and being there on that morning, I knew He was watching over us and would make everything all right.
The transplant went as smoothly as it was supposed to. We sat and watched TV and chatted with the nurses. Six hours later I was on my way back home and resumed a normal life the very next day. This time I didn’t see the “man with the cooler”, I always wondered if my recipient was close by, and would get my cells soon after. It all really is quite the miracle!
Being a donor has changed me in so many ways that I’ll never fully grasp. To be someone’s “one-in-a-million” chance at life has to touch your heart, it has to make a difference in everything you do from that point forward. It did that for me.
It is nearly spring now, and I know the one-year anniversary is coming up. I was waiting patiently for an update. Then DKMS called me. I returned the call right away and in those few seconds it took to get them on the phone I went through a thousand scenarios – he’s doing great, he’s in remission, he’s starting school, he’s been cured, I dreamed them all. But no, the woman on the other end of the line told me that he had recently passed away. She made sure I understood that it was from an “unrelated complication” and not as a result of his leukemia. Of course, my heart sank for the family, and I could do nothing at all to take away their pain.
It took about eight months for me to realize that not doing something would not sit well with me for long. This feeling wasn’t going away. I had the idea to maybe have a bone marrow drive, here in our town, in honor of this child and other children just like him. That was nine bone marrow drives ago and we have swabbed well over a thousand people, with seven matches to date. Being a donor will change that person for the better in every conceivable way.
I still think about that little boy every day.