Donating Bone Marrow Was Easy

By Marcia E. Gawecki

Donating bone marrow to a little girl was probably the proudest thing that I’ve ever done in my lifetime. Actually, I could be in good company. NBA star Shaquille O’Neal and rapper 50 Cent just registered to give during “National Bone Marrow Donor Month.”

It all started when a girl with leukemia needed a bone marrow transplant, and she put out a plea to a small community in Nebraska, where my dad lived. As a physician, he knew that donating bone marrow was an easy way to save lives. There just needed to be more donors. As a father, he told me to sign up.

I obediently signed up with the National Marrow Donor Program (now called the Be the Match Registry), thinking my chances of matching were about a billion to one. See, I wanted to help, but didn’t know much about it. I also did’t like needles or hospital stays.

I ended up not matching with the little girl in Nebraska. Sadly, she died before she found a match. But, six months later, the Be the Match Registry contacted me by phone. They said they had a possible match, and needed samples of my blood.

I donated a few vials at the doctor’s office, trying not to look. It only took a few minutes. I was curious now, and liked the way that the nurses were all treating me so nicely.

“It’s a good thing you’re doing,” they all said, smiling. “We might have a match.”

After a series of more blood tests over the next few weeks, I started telling my friends, and writing down my experience in a diary. No matter what the outcome would be, I knew this had to be an important one.

Mutual of Omaha Insurance Companies, my employer at the time, even wrote a story about me in the company newsletter. “A local hero,” they called me. Well, anyone would do the same thing. Save a life for an overnight hospital stay.

“I don’t think I would do it,” my sister said, honestly. “It’s kind of a lot of trouble for a stranger. And you have to undergo major surgery.”

I ended up matching with a 9-year-old girl who wanted to be a marine biologist when she grew up. She told me this in a handwritten letter that I received the night before my surgery.

My contact at the Registry also gave me a short letter from her mother who thanked me and told me that her daughter only had a seven percent chance of survival without the bone marrow operation.

I cried thinking how this young girl was fighting for her life, while I was puffing myself up, being “the local hero.”

I stayed overnight at a nice hospital in Omaha. The next morning, the doctors took out 1500 ml of my bone marrow from my hips and replaced two pints of blood. They took out the bone marrow with large needles–the size of knitting needles. Luckily, I didn’t see them. Afterwards, there were two small “freckles” above either hip that served as a physical reminder of the experience.

“You’ll be able to replace the 1500 ml in about two weeks,” my mother, who is a nurse, said.

The operation took place on a Friday, and I was back to work on Monday, with a little achiness in my hips and a pillow behind me.

For the young girl, however, all of her bone marrow was taken away and replaced with mine. They explain all of these things in detail. They also show you videos of other donors and their experiences. Nothing is a surprise. It’s all too important.

“If you’re allergic to strawberries, she will be too,” explained one nurse after the operation. “Because she now has your DNA.”

I heard that the operation went well for the girl. I started praying for her recovery and a promising future.

Weeks passed, and then I got a note from my contact stating that the little girl had died. She lived for one month, but then suddenly caught a cold and died.

I was angry. Why didn’t they call me for a second donation?  They told me that it was possible. I had signed all of the papers. I would have gladly done it again.

Then I got mad at God for taking away such a brave little girl at the prime of her life. Eventually, I became mad at myself for not being a better donor. At times, I’d sneak cigarettes, which they told me not to do. Perhaps my smoking caused her cold and death?

“I don’t think so,” a nurse told me later. “There’s a lot more involved than that.”

Still grieving months later, I created a painting of a little girl with a white flower. I called it “Hope.” I never knew her name, and I didn’t contact her mother afterwards. I was ashamed that my DNA wasn’t good enough to save her little girl. What could I possibly say?

I ended up giving the “Hope” painting to a young, poor black boy in Chicago. It’s a long story, but I was showing my paintings at an inner-city church, and he admired them.

“Tell me about this painting,” he said.

“I call it ‘Hope,'” I answered, not wanting to revisit the story. “It’s about a little girl that I once knew.”

“Can I have it?” he asked. “It’s about hope, right?”

I gave it to him without a second thought. Everyone needs hope in this world.

I hadn’t thought about Hope until last week when the Be the Match Registry sent me a letter, asking for an address and phone update.

See, the incredible thing is, once you’re a donor, your DNA is in the registry, and you could possibly match with someone again. There are stories of donors who have matched two and three times. Science is really incredible.

Then I read an article about the rapper, 50 Cent, who just signed up for the Be the Match Registry.  He was moved to do so because 11-year-old actress Shannon Tavarez from the Broadway production of “The Lion King,” was diagnosed with leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant.

According to the news story, Tavarez’s plight made 50 Cent think about his own child. “My son is just a couple years older than Shannon and I can’t imagine if his life was needlessly cut short when there is someone out there that could save him,” the rap star said.

“Shannon’s chances of finding a matching donor are slim because she’s African American and Dominican and minorities are underrepresented in the national registry,” he added. “Everyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity deserves a fair chance at life. Registering to become a bone marrow donor starts with a cheek swab but it’s more than that. It’s a commitment to save a life.”

A few weeks earlier, NBA star Shaquille O’Neal registered with the Be the Match Registry too. It’s wonderful that these high profile role models are signing up and inspiring others to help save lives. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and hope that my chances to save a life are not over yet.

Be the Match Registry is the largest bone-marrow donor center in the world, with more than 2 million registered donors. To sign up, visit Registrants have to be 18 to 55 years old and in good health.

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