Sunday, July 27, 2008

Feeling Thankful

Shortly after Lovey and I moved to our current locale, we found ourselves at a rather large blood drive taking place where we work. On that particular day, the Red Cross was heavily recruiting people to sign up for the National Marrow Donor Program. I'd heard of the program previously, but it was the first chance I'd had to sign up for their registry. It didn't take me long to decide that I should go ahead and sign up. On that day, it only meant filling out a bit of extra paperwork and having an additional vial of blood drawn. And while I did consider the larger commitment I was making that day, the odds of being a match for someone in need of a marrow donation were quite small.

Over the next few years, I would occasionally receive communications from the NMDP - mainly checks to make sure they had my correct contact information, and reminders of the importance of my commitment. And every time I received something in the mail, I'd wonder about the possibility of being called upon to actually donate. Within a few days, something more pressing would come up, and I'd forget about the NMDP until the next check-in. Then came April of 2007...

The phone call truly came out of the blue. Lovey and I were reveling in our parental journey with Monkey, running on far too little sleep and more joy than we'd ever known. Every day was so full of new and wonderful experiences that it had become easy to forget that there are people who have to fight every day just to live. But when I learned that I was a potential match for someone in need of a marrow donation, it was not unlike the day I signed up for the registry -- in a very brief moment I knew what the right thing to do was, and I agreed to have blood work done to better determine my compatibility with the potential recipient.

I have to credit my dad with instilling in me that unflinching sense of responsibility. For as long as I can remember, he's been a volunteer blood donor, and although I can't recall asking him why, I've always known that he does it because he's able to and it's the right thing to do. So when I turned 17, I started giving blood, as well. And despite the snickering and mostly good-natured teasing of friends, I've been grateful for my downright squeaky-clean lifestyle (although somwhat less thankful for the lack of funds to allow me to spend large chunks of time in Europe or visit Africa) because every few months it seems that another of the "youthful indiscretions" I avoided winds up in a question asked during that screening. And no, the effect of that is not to make me look down upon those who are unable to donate, rather it makes me wonder how in the hell blood banks are able to keep an ample supply of blood.

Anyway... I had the blood work done, then waited to hear back from the NMDP. I was visiting family in Kansas when the next call came. I was an excellent match, but even more tests were needed. After returning home, I made a trip to Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE, where I was poked, prodded, and asked an awful lot of personal questions -- all to make sure that my health was good enough that tissue from my body wouldn't do more harm than good for the recipient, but also to impress upon me the seriousness of the commitment I was about to make. What I'd never thought about was the process the recipient had to go through before receiving the transplant. S/he must have her/his own bone marrow completely killed off, meaning that if a donor were to back out of the commitment or be injured or otherwise incapacitated and unable to donate, s/he would die. That moment of realization was, for me, all at once humbling, horrifying, and the final galvinization of my resolve to see the process through. I very carefully drove home, discussed all that I'd learned with Lovey and made sure she was o.k. with my participation, then signed the paperwork stating that I was fully committed to making the donation.

My surgery was scheduled, and during the next few weeks I was careful to eat a very well-balanced diet, avoid anyone who was sick with anything at all, and drove as though my high school driver's ed teacher was in the passenger seat with his clipboard and pen. Three weeks before the surgery, I was innocently taking out the trash when I sprained and tore the skin off of my right ankle. I didn't think much of it, but when I showed up at the Red Cross for an autologous blood donation, there was panic. They couldn't take my blood because of the open wound, and phone calls ensued. The hospital in Delaware was contacted, as well as the NMDP. More questions were asked, and after lengthy discussion, the surgeon who would oversee the procedure decided that everything was all right. Trash duty was shifted to the far more graceful and coordinated Lovey for the duration, and I drove home feeling particularly humiliated. Damn my petite ankles!

Donation day arrived, and with it the realization that general anesthesia now causes me to experience extreme nausea. No big deal, because the donation was done and on the way to the recipient. An extra night in the hospital was nothing compared to what s/he would soon experience. Drugged up for the four-hour drive home, I left Christiana Hospital physically sore, but mentally buoyed by the hope I held for the recipient. That was July 25, 2007.

In the year that has passed since that day, I learned that the person who received my bone marrow is a 49 (now 50) year old woman with leukemia. It was, of course, in remission at the time of the transplant and remains so to this day. The NMDP strictly maintains the confidentiality of both donor and recipient information, but one year post-donation, allows both parties to release their personal data to the other. On the anniversary day, I called my donor advocate and requested the release forms. I have them now, and they will be in tomorrow's mail, signed and headed back to the NMDP. Within a few weeks, I may know the identity of the woman who received my donation and even be able to contact her. Whether she releases her information or not, I will forever be grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to participate in this process.

I'm not wealthy or famous, but this experience made me realize that I can do things that make a difference in the lives of real people. And that has helped me to remember that I am part of something much larger than the everyday world in which I live. The bravery that this woman has shown is a constant reminder to me that life is worth fighting for. Seeing and meeting so many people who work so hard to find donors for those in need gave my flagging faith in humanity a much-needed shot in the arm. And the love and support given to me by my incredible wife every step of the way during the process only reinforced for me the fact that, even when it's painful and scary, doing the right thing truly is the only choice. I am so very thankful for this experience, and I hope that one day soon I can personally thank the woman who changed my outlook on life by bravely reaching out into the unknown and asking for help.

7 comments:

micala said...

What an amazing, beautiful post. I've been donating blood ever since my senior year blood drive in high school and also have never questioned that decision. I think maybe sometimes, it takes being really truly thankful and appreciative for what you've been given in this life to have no hesitation in helping others in any way you can. That has actually been my one small regret with getting a tattoo - not being allowed to donate blood for a year.

istgrrl said...

This is such a moving post. I frankly had no idea you were a bone marrow donor until I saw a couple of tweets about it, and I'm thankful you decided to share this full experience with us. I have never thought about donating blood marrow, but I do donate blood regularly (when I'm not blocked because of surgeries, ear piercings, etc.). It's an easy thing to do and, as you have so eloquently pointed out, it can make a life altering impact on another. Well done, and thank you.

cmykdorothy said...

Your post totally moved me and made my day. Thank you so much for sharing. I'm signing up for the bone marrow donor registry today.

Dana said...

It makes me feel thankful, too. For all the reasons that you mentioned, and because you don't think it was a major deal—because it is. What you didn't mention is just how sick you got from the anesthesia and how you had to take pain pills and hobble around for a few weeks and that you couldn't pick up your daughter for a while...yet you still said you'd donate if she needed another batch.

paul carlisle kletchka said...

Thank you all for the very kind comments! I'm so very happy to know that my post was actually read.

And cmykdorothy - you ROCK!

Sarah said...

What a beautiful (and beautifully written) story. I just hope that I have the courage to say "yes" if I ever get that call. My maternal grandfather was a lifelong blood donor, and every time I donate, I think of him (including the donation last fall that coincided with the day he passed away). It really hammers home for me the concept of the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Sarah Deer said...

That is SO COOL!!!