Last week, Be The Match, the national bone marrow donation registry, posted this on Facebook: “Fill in the blank! I support Be The Match because _________.”
There is no easy, one way to answer this question. But let me try. I’ve been working on it for over four years.
I support Be The Match because it’s my way to give back to other families the hope for a second chance that mine was given.
Perhaps what sets marrow apart from nearly any other type of tissue/organ donation is that it is a gift of life from a living donor. It doesn’t have to take a tragedy or a family member to provide a donor.
I knew I wanted to join the program for a long time, especially after my friend Amanda Bunch received a transplant while we were in high school.
My friend since middle school, Amanda had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in elementary school. She was my no-nonsense friend, my friend who always offered a hug on a bad day and my friend who competed with me for first-chair flute in band class.
When we were in high school, she was diagnosed with cancer again, only this time a rare form of leukemia. It was most likely caused by the radiation used to shrink her tumor. The summer before our senior year, she underwent a bone marrow transplant.
Despite the hard work of her medical team and the always-positive outlook of my friend, Amanda passed away Dec. 30, 2006. She was 18 years old.
Even though there was so much pain in losing her, I can’t explain the hope that donation gives a family. Transplant is not a first effort endeavor and waiting to find a match can be stressful. It is usually a final course of action and many times it is successful.
It’s the hope of success; the hope of the years to come that can mean so much to everyone.
A little over a year later, my family friend Travis Wallace, someone who is like an older cousin to me, was diagnosed with leukemia and I started to sort out how I could join the donor registry.
His first bout with leukemia was in 1993, while he was in high school. Shortly after graduating from college, he relapsed in 1999 and received a transplant, which sent him back into remission. In late March 2008, a month after the birth of his daughter, he found out he again had relapsed. I was finally old enough to be a donor. It would be a lie to say that a small part of me didn’t hope I could help him.
In Arizona at the time, there weren’t (and there still aren’t) any centers that offered a place to register. I believe this was also before a kit could be mailed to your home.
At the time, I was preparing for a trip to California that weekend and I hoped that I would be able to register at a center there, but as fate would have it, that wasn’t necessary.
While walking out of my Arizona State University dorm to head over to the Memorial Union for lunch, I passed a table for a multicultural club. They were hosting a drive.
“I want to sign up,” I said, walking straight up to the table. “What do I have to do?”
“Do you want to know about the process, about how it works?” a student at the table asked me.
No, I told her. I already knew that I needed the inside of my cheek swabbed for DNA, that I could be on the registry for years and never be called, and that with new medical advances, donating was far less painful and less likely to cause complications. I knew that every person who joins may mean a potential match for someone else.
It was my 19th birthday, that day four years ago. It is the best gift I ever had, the gift to give.
We hoped and prayed and hoped some more for Travis that spring. They found a second match, one they said might be a better one than the first. They performed another transplant, and while the transplant itself was successful, ultimately the treatment took too much from his body. He passed away Aug. 21, 2008, leaving behind a loving wife and a beautiful baby girl who shares his eyes.
In what seems like chance, fate, karma and luck, I was contacted by a BTM representative on Oct. 30, 2008 because I might be a potential match for a female recipient.
It was strange to be contacted that quickly. My aunt had been on the registry for over a decade and had never been contacted.
The coordinator was reading out of my file, I could tell, “You’ve been a member since … April? That’s so recent …,” she said, almost to herself.
As it turned out, my six markers were matched exactly with a 36-year-old woman with leukemia.
The first question they always ask is this: Do you still wish to donate?
“Y-yes,” was my quick reply, “Of course.”
This time, they tested a blood sample to check for additional markers and blood parasites.
Whether fortunately, or unfortunately, by the holidays of that year my match’s doctor decided that a transplant wasn’t her best option.
My coordinator wasn’t able to tell me if she was doing better or worse. She told me that I was still a contender for donation if this woman’s treatment plan changed. That’s all I know.
To this day, I wonder about this woman. Was her treatment successful? Is she married; does she have a family? Do we share anything in common? Where does she live?
They’re questions that I’ll never know the answers to. But this I do know: The Be The Match national marrow donor program always needs more donors. I invite you to explore the idea at www.marrow.org.
It is with this column that I remember Travis, who once encouraged a young girl to write, Amanda, a friend who always found a way to make her smile, and one 36-year-old woman she knows nothing about, but wishes the world for.
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