Many of you know the background leading up to this story all too well, but for those who don’t…
On July 9, 2012, I was diagnosed with a dangerous and fast growing blood cancer, called AML (acute myeloid leukemia), of which my chances of survival were only 10-20%. My greatest chance at beating this disease was to receive a stem cell transplant. Once I began responding to the very aggressive chemotherapy protocols that I had to endure, I was deemed a potential candidate to receive a stem cell transplant. Both of my siblings were eager to be donors for me, but neither one was a “match” when tested for human leukocyte antigens that are used as markers. My brother and sister were both crushed, as they each hoped to provide my shot at a second chance at life. I had a moment of tears, but my faith never waivered. I wasn’t about to give up hope. The treatments, blood and platelet transfusions, and further rounds of chemotherapy continued as I waited and prayed for Be The Match (National Marrow Donor Program) to find an unrelated donor, an angel. Not just for me…I needed to survive for my family; my husband and three sons (ages 9, 13 and 15 when I was diagnosed).
Unbeknownst to me at the time, a young woman had recently joined the marrow donor registry in late July/early August, just weeks after I was diagnosed with AML. She “swabbed” at a Be The Match donor drive that was held at the college she was attending at the time. It turns out she was one of two people in the national marrow donor registry, which consisted of 9 million people at that time, who was a perfect match (10 out of 10 markers) for me. Donors and recipients remain anonymous to each other until they mutually agree to connect…if the donor is from the same country, there is one year waiting period, and if the donor is foreign, the waiting period is two years.
Transplant day: November 13, 2012:
I was admitted to Siteman Cancer Center/Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis early November to begin a rigorous chemotherapy protocol several days prior to the stem cell transplant to ensure my bone marrow was completely wiped out and ready to receive new, healthy stem cells. Not permitted to know any information about my donor other than the fact she was female, I watched her cells drip into the port that was surgically implanted in my chest, with “Oh Happy Day” by Edwin Hawkin Singers playing in the background. My husband and my sister were by my side as tears rolled down my face…. tears of gratitude for this nameless, faceless angel who gave of herself, and tears of joy for a second chance at life; to be given a chance to be there for my children as they grow.
(photo: receiving stem cell infusion)
Often, doctors will watch for a recipient’s blood type to convert to the donor’s blood type in the first few weeks to see if the transplant is taking place, but my donor and I share the same blood type. Six weeks and another bone marrow biopsy later, I heard the magic words, “Your bone marrow has 100% donor engraftment and there are zero cancer cells”. I heard these same glorious words a few more times for the first year.
One year later, I was told I could write a letter to my donor, so we knew at that point that she was from the United States. I was not allowed to include information that was personal. This was a struggle for me, as not only did I deeply want to express my gratitude, but also wanted to convey to her how she affected so many aspects of my life and my family. A few months later, I followed up with my transplant coordinator and was told they hadn’t heard back from her and that she likely wanted to remain anonymous. I have to admit that I felt a certain void in my heart, not knowing who she was, but respected her decision.
At my two-year transplant anniversary, I contacted my transplant coordinator and asked if I could send another letter to my donor, as I wished to thank her again and let her know that I was still alive. A few months after sending my second letter, my coordinator telephoned to tell me that my donor wanted to initiate contact. Coincidentally, I received the phone call as I was driving down to St. Louis for a transplant doctor appointment. I had to pull off at the next exit to gain composure.
I was given her contact information. Megan. This is her name. Of course it was Megan. This is the name I would have named my child if I had ever had a girl. This is a name that has always been imprinted on my heart.
Megan and I began communicating and within a few months, I made plans to fly to California to meet her. My oldest son accompanied me during his fall break from college. We flew into Los Angeles, rented a car, and spent three hours driving up the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara, near Megan’s home.
What would I say to Megan when I met her? What if I’m a blubbering idiot and start bawling? How do you thank the person who saved your life?
The drive up the coast was a Godsend… hugging the coastline in our little rental VW Jetta. Watching the crashing waves and glistening blue water, as we would wind in and out of mountain paths, was just what I needed. The scenery was breathtaking and it was wonderful to spend one on one time with my son. We arrived at The Upham Hotel in Santa Barbara, a lovely historic inn that Megan arranged for us to stay, to find an elaborate gift basket waiting for us in our room. The basket was full of fruits and gourmet local delicacies that Megan thoughtfully put together for us.
Finally, the moment of meeting: my son and I drove to Megan’s condo that evening. It was dark and we weren’t sure how to access the entrance to her condo, so I called her and she walked out to the parking lot to meet us. We were met with a friendly hug, and I was able to maintain composure, no blubbering or bawling. We spent the evening getting to know her and her boyfriend. Oh, and her dog, Zoey, who they adopted this past summer. For those who may not know, we also have a dog we adopted two years ago, and yes, her name is Zoey! We had a lovely evening and made plans to get together the next night. She made a wonderful dinner for us the following evening, which was completely accommodating of my son’s vegan diet. Again, could she be more wonderful? Megan took a “mental health day” from work the next day, day 3, and we spent a wonderful day together, hiking through a butterfly grove and down a bluff to a beautiful secluded beach. It was a fantastic way to unwind and get to know each other.
The final evening, we had dinner at a fabulous vegan restaurant and Megan drove us around the Santa Barbara area a bit, showing us some areas we hadn’t seen yet. I knew I couldn’t get away with it that easily…. time to say good-bye and yes; I couldn’t hold back the tears. So many emotions built up and I couldn’t hold the floodgates any longer.
So, this girl saved my life and she is amazing. It goes without saying that she is a kind, giving and thoughtful soul. I feel like she is a part of our family now, and the love in my heart for her is indescribable. So, remember that void I mentioned when I thought I would never know who she was? It’s completely gone, and my heart is full.
Today, November 13, 2015, my three-year stem cell transplant anniversary, I celebrate life and I celebrate Megan, my angel!
*So, in case anyone is wondering…Megan had not chosen to remain anonymous. We suspect the marrow donor program coordinator lost her as she had moved from the time she donated. Regardless, I’m so glad they were finally able to find her and we were able to connect.