I am a thriver, a bone marrow transplant survivor. I can say this because of the support of my family, friends, doctors at MD Anderson and my bone marrow donor. The latter were total strangers to me until I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in January 2013.
At my Florida doctor’s recommendation, I traveled to MD Anderson with my oldest daughter, Shannon, and a dear friend. After a lot of testing, my doctors at MD Anderson told me that a bone marrow transplant was my only viable treatment option.
My family and friends wanted to be tested for a DNA match, but my DNA match was found through Be The Match, the national marrow donor registry. Doctors typically seek a 10/10 DNA match. I had two 13/13 matches and one 14/14. Remarkable.
My bone marrow cell transplant
My donor was selected, and on April 19, 2013, I received my allogenic transplant. On the morning of my transplant, the nurse came into my room and said, “Your stem cells have arrived and we are just waiting for them to thaw. They should be ready around 1 p.m.” Sure enough, 1 p.m. came, and my infusion began.
I remember looking at the bag with my new bone marrow in it and feeling hopeful and thankful. My son, Brett, and my oldest daughter, Shannon, were with me. Brett lightened the mood by singing and dancing as he played the ukulele. We celebrated with a tiara, pastries, cookies and party goods my kids had gotten to celebrate my new “birthday.” I was too sick to have much, but we were overjoyed.
During the 100 days that followed my bone marrow transplant, I was required to stay near MD Anderson. During that time, there were follow-up treatments, medication adjustments, tests and a lot of waiting.
One of the highlights of that period was corresponding with my donor. Initially, we couldn’t exchange our names or locations, but we got to know one another in general terms, exchanging letters, cards and small gifts.
Meeting my bone marrow donor
After the required one-year waiting period, my donor and I were granted permission to communicate openly. This is completely voluntary, and we were eager to do so. Two weeks later, my hospital coordinator called to give me the highly anticipated details: My donor’s name was Jenny. She was a kind, generous young woman from Colorado.
Equipped with her name and contact information, I promptly called Jenny and left a message. When she returned my call, we were both so excited that we talked over each other at first. As we calmed down, we started to make plans to meet. It was decided that Jenny and a friend would visit me in Florida while my kids were home.
Three weeks later, Jenny and her friend arrived. With a tearful and comforting greeting, we quickly became family. We spent the weekend bonding over dinner conversations and tearful introductions to other loved ones who had been pivotal to my survival and recovery.
Jenny later flew across the country to attend my youngest daughter’s wedding and help with preparations. And last summer, my friend Jan, who’d also accompanied me on my first trip to MD Anderson, traveled with me to Colorado to meet Jenny's family and friends. They were all so gracious and made us feel like rock stars.
Returning to MD Anderson with Jenny
I invited Jenny to accompany my youngest daughter, Autumn, and me to MD Anderson for my most recent visit. I wanted her to meet my amazing doctors and medical team, and to see where magic continues to take place for me. As we retraced my steps from arrival to survival, I happily introduced Jenny to everyone. The nursing staff was thrilled for our success, which is also their success. They don't usually get to meet recipients and donors together. We hope that our visit will encourage others.
I feel like Jenny and I have known each other our entire lives. We text and email often just to say hello and check-in. We laugh and have fun together, but we have something more enduring than that. Our connection is deep, not just in the DNA way, but in a heartfelt, truly appreciative, loving way. Thanks to Jenny, life is wonderful.