How to save a life. (Wedneday’s Wisdom)

On Monday, I received an unexpected Fed Ex package that transported me back 30 years in time. The envelope looked as though it had been dropped in a puddle and then run over. (Which is probably why the FedEx driver didn’t make eye contact with me when I opened the door.) I studied the envelope, fairly certain it had landed in the wrong hands. I couldn’t decipher the name or address of the sender and was barely able to make out my own address. C was working on World Literature and I had been helping L with Humanities when the doorbell rang. I set the envelope aside to finish our study of the Modernist Period and Picasso’s “art.” Well, at least that’s what the book called it. But, I digress…

The bold blue and orange “FedEx” screamed for my attention. (L’s, too.) The musty smell couldn’t divert my curiosity. I, once again, inspected the label. I set it down. I wouldn’t become side-tracked from the task at hand… I wouldn’t let a small distraction become a large interruption… I wouldn’t let…Oh, what the heck! I ripped the “pull-here” string across the back of the envelope and reached in. I carefully pulled out the slightly damp pages. A booklet fell to the table from between the pages. I ignored it.  The words “Be The Match” jumped out from the top of the page. “Seriously?!” I thought, “Dating services are FedEx’ing their materials to a married woman?!–What a waste!”  I quickly realized how absurd it would be to receive an FedEx’d invitation to a dating service. (Thankfully before I called my sister. Her laughter would have been ear-splitting.) My eyes moved past the “Dear Mary.”

“You have been identified as a possible marrow match for a 4-year old male in need of a transplant. The patient’s doctor is trying to determine treatment options as quickly as possible.”

I re-read the logo at the top of the page. The letter had come from the National Marrow Donor Program. According to the letter, I originally joined the registry in 1988. I had long forgotten. My stomach flipped.

Around 1980 or 81, I signed up to give blood for my first time. The Red Cross set up in one of the multi-purpose rooms at my high school. Since I was underage, I sat with a signed permission slip in my lap and waited for my turn. I was simultaneously excited and scared. I hated shots but had volunteered with a friend to have a needle stuck in my arm. Who knew I had small, “roly” veins? My first attempt at donating was a miserable failure–for me and the phlebotomist, whose confidence I had solidly rocked. There was no blood taken from my arm that day, suffice it to say.

I left disappointed. Really disappointed.  I wanted to feel as though I had done something great–that I had made a difference. Instead, I went home feeling like a failure. Yes, I knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong, but explain that to the 16-year-old that sat munching a cookie she hadn’t “earned.” Thankfully, my dad understood and shared with me one of his own dismal experiences donating blood. (It was both gross and funny! Perfect for a teen!) He encouraged me try again sometime. He also shared with me his commitment to the blood/tissue/organ donation process. He told me simply, “It saves lives. You could save a life.”

I don’t know what first led him to his early and staunch belief in blood, and subsequent organ, donation. Perhaps, it stemmed from his mother’s service as a nurse in both World Wars. Perhaps, it originated during his own service as a musician/medic in WWII. Either way, it was an absolute reflection of his generous heart. And, he taught me well. As soon as I could, I signed my “organ donor card” and became a regular blood and plasma donor at Stanford University Blood Band. Each opportunity to “give back” to my community gave me so much more in return. I never saw the faces of the people I helped. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that I did something to help, because I could save a life.

Little did I know that my blood could help so many, including a small burn victim. Very early one Saturday morning, I was awakened by a phone call from Stanford University Hospital. A little boy was in crisis; he had been burned in a fire. They needed my particular blood type and it needed to be CMV-. (Years earlier, I had found out that, although not the rarest, my blood type is shared with only a small percentage of the population, made even smaller by the fact that I am CMV-. CMV is a very common “mono-type” virus that does not harm healthy adults, but can harm pediatric patients, those with compromised immune systems, and burn victims.) “Could I come up for a directed donation?” they asked.  I was there before 7 that morning. I could save a life.

Roughly 5 years after I signed up to give blood that first time, “donation” became very personal when I stared into the eyes of someone whose life depended on the generosity of an organ donor: my sister. Complications from an autoimmune disease had caused her kidneys to fail and left her dependent on a dialysis machine. She wasn’t yet 30, and she needed a transplant. Considering the grave circumstances, she was lucky; she had a large pool of siblings willing to donate a kidney. After testing all 8 siblings, only one brother was a match. Though still a relatively new procedure in the 80’s, the transplant was a success. Ironically, long before a single test had been performed, my brother had repeatedly, and with certainty, said he would be the donor. He would save a life.

I read, and re-read the materials sent to me Monday.  My girls asked their questions, “Will it hurt?,” “What do they do?,” and “Would I do it?” My husband expressed his concerns for my health. I told them all there is only 1 answer: “Yes.” I completed my initial health screen yesterday, the first small step in a process to determine if I’m the best match for this little boy. A 4-year old little boy–someone’s son, or brother, or grandson. How could I not? I could save a life. And one day, he may save another.

When my father died, one of his last wishes was to donate every usable organ–kidneys, liver, pancreas, etc. Sadly, cancer had ravaged his body, leaving his major organs “unsuitable” for transplant. However, his corneas were donated. And, as my brother-in-law said in comfort to my mom, “What a privilege it will be for someone to see through Joe’s eyes.” My father was a wise man, with a terrific view of the world. He shared his wisdom with his children, and his vision with a stranger. I can only imagine the number of lives he has saved through both acts.

To this day, I donate blood and plasma when I can. Though, I have been deferred for various reasons over the years, I haven’t let it deter me from trying. Please join me. Give back. Become a donor. Save a life.

Here are just a few resources to get you started:

Donating Blood | American Red Cross

Home – Bonfils Blood Center

National Marrow Donor Program – Be The Match Marrow Registry

Welcome to organdonor.gov | Register Today as an Organ Donor

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14 thoughts on “How to save a life. (Wedneday’s Wisdom)”

  1. My mom didn’t believe in donating organs: “If G-d wanted you to leave the world with one kidney, he would’ve sent you into it with one kidney.” This was something I disagreed with her on early and vocally.

    I started donating blood when I was 17. I’ve donated as often as I could since. I haven’t yet registered my bone marrow, but you’ve inspired me to do that. A little pain is so insignificant in the face of this gift of life.

    Beautiful. I’m praying for a match, and for that little boy.

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    1. Thanks, Deb. I am glad I was able to inspire you to register as a bone marrow donor. I understand you and your mom had differing views on donation. Originally, my husband had different views than I did as well. He had a mother who believed as your mom did. He has (wisely 😉 ) come over to “my side.”

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  2. Wow Mary, you have such a rich heritage. We are all blessed that you share it with us. My mom was able to donate her corneas also. I know that someone else can see because of her kindness, similar to your dad’s kind heart. Reading your blogs makes me wish that I could have met your parents – maybe someday in heaven.

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    1. Awww-thanks, Marsha! Your mom was clearly generous, too. (Like her daughter!)

      One of my great regrets was that I didn’t fully appreciate who my parents were as people before they passed away. I gotta say, I now recognize and appreciate just how much wisdom they did share.

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  3. As someone who hasn’t yet donated blood before, your personal connection to it is very touching and inspires me to find a way to help lives. There are so many ways we can each give back and no gesture is ever too small!

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  4. As the recipient of the transplant referred to in Mary’s blog, I will always be eternally grateful for the generosity of my brother. His actions have allowed me to live a full and productive life, have allowed me see my beautiful nieces and nephews grow up, and have allowed me to witness the gentle, loving and talented woman that Mary has become. Please donate blood and sign up to become an organ donor. You have no idea whose life you may be saving!
    FYI–During the winter months, blood donations run precariously low so please consider giving the gift of life this holiday season.

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