Blood Brother

Why was the American Red Cross leaving me messages? Something about being a marrow donor match. What the hell? I listened to the message again.  Uh-oh…

Years ago I had donated blood toward a marrow drive.  It only took a few minutes and with a band aid and a sticker saying “I gave blood!” I walked out without a second thought.

When I made that donation I was at a very different stage of life. I was married with young kids, my husband supported us. I talked the talk, I would gladly give to help another person in need. It would not be that much of an inconvenience really and I could be a hero.

Well big mouth, now I had to walk the walk… And it was not so convenient at all.

“You are a perfect match”, the representative from the Red Cross said over the phone.  

“I, I uh, put my name in the registry a really long time ago and, um…”

“Well Ma’am, you can always withdraw your name from the registry”

“A perfect match, really?”

“Really.  Very unusual for all the numbers to line up so closely between a non-related donor and recipient. You are about as close to a perfect match as is possible’.

I had just started a brand new job. They had waited for me to finish at my former job, my supervisor calling me every day and nagging me, “when can you start?”.  Finally, I was there now, my first day being exactly one week before.

No more husband to bring home the bacon. I was chief cook and bottle washer now. Literally.

“Ma’am, the protocol is this. We are going to send you some literature to fully educate you on the procedure. If you are willing, we will take more blood samples for testing. If at that point you get clearance and are going to go through with it you need to come to the hospital at U-Conn in Farmington where you will have a complete physical and more blood work. Look at it this way, even if you are not a match or have a condition that would prevent you from being able to donate you will still be getting a full physical and the best medical care available for you at no charge.”

Well, I thought, I will study this and find out what it really entails, which is probably what I should have done in the first place.

It goes like this- the donor has to have complete clearance concerning any disease, because the recipient will have no immunities upon receiving the donation. The donor is given general anesthesia and a hole is drilled into their pelvic bone, where the most concentration of bone marrow is located in the body. Then a very long needle is inserted to the hole and withdraws the fluid from the bone.  The recipient receives the marrow in the form of an injection into the bloodstream, no drilling, no holes.  Incredibly, the cells find their way to where they belong on their own. If all goes well, the platelets start doing their work gradually, giving this person a second chance at life.

According to the pamphlets, some donors reported a “pinching” sensation and soreness after the  procedure. Others said they needed to take a whole week off and could barely walk. No lifting was allowed for a couple of weeks after.  

Anesthesia and pain. Having to take time off from work and having a physical job that required lifting and two small children that also required some lifting. What had I gotten myself into?

In the literature there were also testimonials from donors. They said it was the best feeling that they’d ever had by giving the gift of life. It was worth the discomfort and the disruption. They were fortunate enough to have healthy lives in the first place.

When I shared this news with my mother, I got that look that she had given me since I was a teenager.  Once again I had plunged headfirst into a situation without understanding the consequences.  My new supervisor was also not thrilled at the possibility of me being incapacitated for a week.

It was so inconvenient! Why now, at this point in my life?

I learned a little more about my match. He was a young man in his early thirties of Jewish Ashkenazi descent, as am I. He lived in Kentucky had acute lymphocytic leukemia and this was his last hope for survival. I pictured a very pale young man in a hospital bed. For some reason I saw him with a close cropped beard, probably unrealistic since he had been through chemotherapy. Nevertheless, this person laid in this hospital room with tubes in his arms surrounded by monitors and beeping machines. His eyes were an unusual light brown, like mine.

What if it had been one of my own children laying in that bed? And what if we learned that somewhere out in Connecticut there was this one lady whose blood was a virtual match for my dying baby. That there might just be a glimmer of hope. And what if unbeknownst to me, she might not share that precious marrow because, well, it was really inconvenient at this time.

I would die, along with my precious child. I could never do that to another parent.  So I told the blood people that I would go forward with the testing.

First step was to go to a local blood drive where in a separate area they were expecting me and would take a few vials of my blood for the initial testing.

Later on though, the FedEx truck that was carrying that precious cargo was in an accident and the vials shattered upon impact.  I missed work again, and gave more blood to replace it. When it was tested, my donation passed and I was given clearance for the next round.

The tide began to turn.  Though my supervisor at work was a little bitchy about it at first, he proudly announced my status to the rest of our company at a staff meeting. My mother said she would accompany me to the battery of tests and physical in Farmington.

After filling out forms and being measured, weighed, poked and prodded we were sent up to the area for the rest of the exam. We walked into the waiting room and we were hit in the face with reality. Every single person in that room was bald, both adults and children.

Of course, chemotherapy. This was an oncology office and these were all people who were praying to find hope in someone like me.  My mother and I looked at each other and for the first time we both really felt the full impact of what this was about.  Afterwards, over lunch she told me how much she admired what I was doing and how grateful she was that I was on this side of the fence as a donor and not one of the others in that room.

A few days later the results came back. I was in great health and that we could go ahead with the procedure. The recipient would be on an aggressive round of radiation to kill off any remaining antibodies he had left. This was to ensure that upon receiving my marrow his body would not reject it.

I took extra good care of myself. I wouldn’t even drink a glass of wine. It was almost like being pregnant again. I was responsible for another human life now and wouldn’t take any chances of harming him.

The donation does not have to be in the same hospital.  When I was to have my procedure, the precious cargo would be flown to Kentucky and administered to him there. Donors and recipients are not allowed to meet one another beforehand.  However, a year after the procedure provided that the recipient recovered, an exchange of letters is permitted, If mutually agreed upon they can meet in person at that time.  

I pictured meeting my blood brother a year later. He would have more color in his face and be in street clothes instead of a hospital gown.  He would smile and we would hug each other.  I would look into those light brown eyes, the ones that were the same color as mine.

The procedure was scheduled for the Friday of Memorial Day weekend in Farmington. I would go up the night before and be put up in a neighboring hotel so I could be there for the early morning appointment. My mother would stay with my kids that first night, they would go with their dad for the rest of the weekend to give me a chance to recuperate.  Depending on how I felt, I would go back to work on Tuesday perhaps.

I was excited now. I no longer was angry with my younger naïve self who had put her name in that registry.  This was a life changing moment for me as well as my guy.

Then on that Wednesday before, another phone call.

“We are so grateful for your time and your gift, but we are very sorry to say that the recipient did not make it. He passed away yesterday.”

“What? No, no…what happened?” I asked.

“The radiation treatments weakened him too much and he just didn’t get through it. We know that this is very hard for you after making this commitment. His family wanted you to know how much they appreciated your generosity”.

And that was it. Suddenly I had Memorial Day weekend free. I would go to work the next day. My life was normal. No inconvenience, everything could continue on normally. Only it really didn’t.

That weekend I sat by the light of citronella candles on my deck surrounded by my friends, their kids, my kids.  The smell of hamburgers on the grill, laughter and conversation was in the air.  I was quiet though. Glass of wine in my hand, looking up in the starry sky I felt like I had lost a member of my own family. I silently made a toast, I’m sorry that I couldn’t save you.  I wish you peace my blood brother.
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My Japanese Maple Tree

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Painting our new home all day,  needing a break I went out to the front yard.  It was sticky and hot in June, 1986.  I stepped out the front door in my acid washed jeans and t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, walking barefoot through the grass I plopped down on the ground underneath a little Japanese Maple Tree.

Big enough to make shade but smaller than the other trees surrounding it, it drew me in.  I laid down on the ground and looked up to the sky through the leaves.  Crimson,  delicate points on them.  I breathed in deeply.  All day long, listening to my mother in law yakking I finally had a little peace.  I felt a sense of ownership, for this was my land.  I owned this little tree on this little piece of land. In the whole, wide, entire world- I now had land.  The sun sparkled through the leaves.  I even felt a ray of hope for my new but doomed marriage.  I noticed the striations in the bark and how they made a pattern going up.  This will be my place, I thought and ran my fingers gently through the strands of grass beneath them, like hair.

“Fly, fly air-o-plane!” I chanted.  I am balancing two year old Madeline up in the air while I lay on my back in the grass.  It’s just warm enough to play outside and the Japanese maple has it’s new spring leaves.  It grows a little every year, the reds of the leaves changing with the seasons, sometimes rusty red, sometimes greenish with a little red and my favorite, the brilliant crimson.  Though the grass is warm on top, the earth below is still a little chilled below.  I love to hear this baby laugh as I throw her gently to the ground, over and over again.  “Airplane, Mommy, airplane!” she demands every time she lands.

Years and years later someone broke my heart.  I had to run to somewhere safe.  I had to leave work, I had to go where no one would talk to me.  The car screeched into the driveway and I tore out of it, running, running till I dropped down to the ground and sobbed.  The Japanese maple had it’s fall colors on, she draped over me, gently and silently.  I rolled onto my back, to my place where I could see the light through the leaves.  Being late afternoon the sun was twinkling because it was almost time to go down. In and out I breathed trying to find peace.  Trying to find comfort.  Trying to figure out why I always loved men that would hurt me some way, whether physically, or emotionally like my current partner.  At this moment I just tried to focus on my tree.  The spindly twigs that connected to the leaves, the slim yet solid base that I had gotten to know so well for fifteen years. The tree comforted me and I laid underneath it till the grass grew cold and damp below me while the sun silently went away.

June again.  It is really, really hot and I am covered in sweat as I lay down underneath my Japanese maple.  Beyond in the driveway is a dumpster loaded to the gills, the moving truck comes tomorrow.  After a weekend of packing, selling and purging with friends and family in tow, I am now alone. It’s time to say goodbye to my friend.  Thank you, I think to myself.  Thank you for being here when I needed to hide or some shade from the sun. Thank you for always providing a sense of familiarity that I needed.  My land, I smiled to myself.  My land that actually belonged to two banks and was not really mine. But that’s what a 26 yr. old  woman thinks, a 50 yr old woman knows better.  And now that I’ve sold it I owe nothing. Thank you for getting me out of debt, tree and land.  The new couple comes in tomorrow.  They are young.  They want to have a baby.  Maybe the woman will play airplane with her baby underneath your red umbrella.  I wonder if she’ll find this place too?  If she will see that the slender tree with the delicate pointy leaves will always be there, firm, solid and strong.