In winter 2001, I had this full feeling in my tummy. Kind of like I feel after eating Thanksgiving dinner. But the bloated feeling wouldn't go away, so I made an appointment with my doctor.
He ordered an x-ray of my abdomen. That x-ray changed my life. It showed my spleen was the size of a football. This alone was life-threatening, and my spleen needed to be removed.
Next came the pathology report. It said I had mantle cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Looking for my bone marrow transplant donor
Bone marrow transplants and stem cell transplants are often used to treat mantle cell lymphoma, and that's what the doctors prescribed me.
This process, treatment and protocol are documented in medical journals, and you can get easily get lost in the weeds reading about this stuff. I'm thankful for Issa Khouri, M.D., and his team for developing and administering this protocol. These guys are beyond smart.
Most of what I learned during my first appointment with Dr. Khouri was over my head, but I understood clearly that a donor had to be found first.
The transplant team searched for my donor. In their first search, they found 36 possible donors. Every two months, that number dropped. Eight months later, three potential donors remained.
Of those three, Dr. Khouri selected Donor #12.
Meeting Donor #12
I wanted to reach out to Donor #12, but there are strict rules when it comes to non-related donors. Communication has to be OK'd, letters or notes redacted, no names, no places. But in my case, Donor #12 wanted to hear from me.
My first letter to her was long, and to this day I still can't thank her enough. Her bone marrow and lymphocytes saved my life.
We kept in contact before and after my bone marrow transplant. I exchanged letters to someone out there who gave part of herself that was grafted into me.
One year post-transplant, bone marrow donors have the option to let the patient contact them. In my case my donor wanted to keep in contact with me. Now we could communicate freely without censorship.
Tara is the name of my donor, my miracle. We have kept in contact throughout the 10 years since my stem cell transplant, and this past summer she brought her family out to Hawaii to meet me.
Oh yes, there were tears. Life is too short, she said. She needed to do this.
Tara and her family spent 10 days with my family, and I finally got to hear what happened on her end during my transplant. As my bone marrow donor, Tara had to undergo a surgery in which doctors withdrew marrow from the back of her pelvic bone. Learning this made me appreciate her selfless act even more.
The gift that makes me want to give back
"There are good people out there," Dr. Khouri said during my last visit with him. But I've known that to be true for the past decade, thanks to Tara.
Tara's donation was life-saving and life changing for me. She made it possible for me to be at both my daughters' high school and college graduations. For my family and I, this was huge.
Her gift has made me more sensitive to the needs of others. It's humbled me, and I hope to give back and not waste this precious gift. I told Tara that every day I try to do something for someone else.
I now encourage others to do the same. You might even ask yourself if you can be a Tara, a Donor #12, for a cancer patient. You have something inside you that can save a life.