Three years ago, my life was saved by a 21-year-old man I have never met and may never know. He had registered to be a bone marrow donor through an international organization that pairs anonymous donors with recipients of the same tissue type.
To this day, I do not know his name, or even what country he is from. But I do know that at a very tender age he made a sacrifice to help a stranger. If that is not the definition of the neighbor-love Christ calls us to, I don’t know what is.
After several years of struggling with a blood disorder that doctors could not quite figure out, specialists at the Mayo Clinic had finally determined that I had aplastic anemia, a rare condition in which the bone marrow stops producing enough new blood cells. They felt that the best hope for a cure was a bone marrow (stem cell) transplant. This meant I would need to take a leave from my job as a young assistant professor of theological ethics at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. To be near my family, I traveled to Connecticut and started working with a hematologist at Yale University. He was optimistic that a transplant could help me, and even felt that it could cure the underlying lupus I had been diagnosed with a decade earlier.
Three years ago, my life was saved by a 21-year-old man I have never met and may never know.
But I would need help from an anonymous donor—my only sibling was not a match, and I had no other immediate relatives who were eligible for testing.
In most cases, the donor’s stem cells do not need to be taken directly from their bone marrow—instead, the cells are drawn from their peripheral blood supply in a procedure that is only somewhat more onerous than giving blood.
But to treat aplastic anemia, doctors prefer to use stem cells from the marrow itself. That meant that my donor would have to undergo an operation, under anesthesia, in which marrow cells were extracted from his hip bone.
The Yale transplant coordinator said that two people whose tissue matched mine had refused the surgery. My situation had become rather dire—the anemia had already caused serious abdominal bleeds requiring hospitalization, and a major brain bleed very nearly killed me. (Neurosurgeons had to perform emergency surgery to repair the bleed, installing a permanent plate and screws onto my left parietal lobe. They said that if I had not already been in the hospital when the bleed happened, I would have quickly and quietly passed away at home.) All other treatment options (including various chemotherapies and surgery to remove my spleen) had been tried and had failed to improve my condition.
How many 21-year-olds want to spend their Christmas break recuperating from a surgery that entails repeated jabs deep into their hip?
Finally, one day in December 2014, the coordinator called to tell me they had a match, and that this donor was willing to go through the surgical extraction. I would need to be admitted to the hospital very soon for the pretransplant procedure.
I felt a strange combination of emotions. Relief, certainly—but also fear and a strange guilt that I could not quite name at first. I soon realized it was a sense of unworthiness in response to such an altruistic gesture by a complete stranger. Would I ever have made a choice like that? How many 21-year-olds want to spend their Christmas break recuperating from a surgery that entails repeated jabs deep into their hip?
Fear quickly overtook those musings—and it was well founded. The pretransplant procedure involved days of toxic chemotherapy and total body irradiation, which led to immediate complications (kidney and respiratory failure). The doctors decided to go ahead with the marrow transplant despite my rapid deterioration, while the treatment team tried mask after mask to help me to breathe—we finally settled on one I referred to as the Darth Vader mask because it covered my entire face and muffled my speech.
One of the many things I was told about the marrow transplant process is that, in a certain way, you are “reborn.”
The donor cells were now circulating through my bloodstream, but I continued to struggle to survive. Doctors punctured my chest with hollow tubes in a last-ditch effort to remove the fluid stubbornly suffocating my lungs; my dialysis-cleansed blood coursed coldly through my veins; and my bruised body grew increasingly alien to me.
But despite the complications, the new immune cells from the donor were silently taking hold in my ravaged system. My blood work began to show hopeful signs that the transplant had been a success in curing the aplastic anemia.
A few months after the transplant, I sent my donor an anonymous card. (The transplant registry protects the identity of both the donor and recipient.) I kept it brief, with no mention of the harrowing details. I said only that I was healing, and that I was grateful for his help. He never wrote me back. I felt compelled to respect his privacy, so I never attempted to contact him again.
Through the compassionate act of a stranger, who stepped up to help me after two others had passed me by, my life was saved.
Five months after the transplant, I moved back to Omaha to try to return to my job at Creighton—but I soon had to concede that I was still too sick to be productive. With the support of my incredible colleagues from the theology department, I resigned and moved home to Connecticut to allow my body and spirit to recover from all I had gone through.
By some divine providence, I finally found my way this past September to an editorial position at Orbis Books, which is the publishing arm of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. I am again surrounded by colleagues who are kind and smart, and I feel blessed.
One of the many things I was told about the marrow transplant process is that, in a certain way, you are “reborn.” Your own immune system is completely decimated so that your body will not reject the donor’s cells. You lose all of your childhood immunities, and you are in some ways like a baby—vulnerable, fragile, helpless. You have to be protected from any possible infection until the new immune system begins to take hold. You are hairless from the chemo and radiation, your skin is pale, and you are too weak to walk at first.
Receiving the transplant is oddly anticlimactic—the marrow cells are infused intravenously from a bag that looks exactly like the many hundreds of bags of cells you have already received in regular blood transfusions. You feel nothing unusual as it goes in.
But this particular transfusion is special. Gradually, if all goes well, these donor cells give you nothing less than new life. This was certainly true for me—both the anemia and lupus were cured. The grafted immune system was establishing itself, and I was slowly gaining strength.
After six months, my hair finally started to grow, as it does for all newborns. In the 18 months following the transplant, I went from being in a wheelchair and dependent upon oxygen, to running local road races.
Through the compassionate act of a stranger, who stepped up to help me after two others had passed me by, my life was saved. He may be an atheist; a humanist; a Christian; a Muslim. But like the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel, he showed mercy to a fellow human being. Imagine if all of us could go and do likewise.