By Kelly Cox
At the IMF, I run the Regional Community Workshop program and
serve as a Regional Director of Support Groups. I frequently find myself travelling
to patient and medical meetings across the country. My aim is to bring the
IMF's mission directly to those affected by myeloma, as well as to the
healthcare professionals who serve them.
In June 2011, I was attending the annual meeting of the
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago, Illinois. While taking
a short break from the IMF booth, I found myself walking the aisles of the
convention hall. One of the booths I passed had no visitors, so I stopped to
say a neighborly hello.
The DKMS Americas (dkmsamericas.org)
representatives were at ASCO to promote their cause and to solicit potential
bone marrow donors. The process was simple. A painless swab of the inside of my
cheek and I was on my way to becoming part of DKMS's database. I didn't give it
a second thought. I practically forgot this ever happened.
In August 2011, I received a call from the New York offices
of DKMS. It seemed that I was a possible match for a woman in her early 20s who
needed a transplant for acute aplastic anemia. The sample collected from me at
ASCO matched all the preliminary selection criteria. Even at that point in
time, the whole concept of being a donor remained pretty abstract for me.
Things started becoming a bit more "real" over the following
4-5 days when I started donating vials of blood for the next stage of the
matching process. In total, 21 vials of my blood were collected at a local Los
Angeles clinic. The next step could not take place in LA, so it was time for me
to fly to the Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley, CA.
They were so nice to me. They took great care of me and my
wife, Mary. My niece and Mary's best friend were with us for support. The day
before the collection procedure, we walked around the Berkeley campus, had a
sandwich and some gelato. It was a beautiful, sunny day. I felt so happy and so
excited in anticipation of the next morning. I stayed up most of that night
because I was too energized and giddy to go to sleep. The mere thought of what
was to come gave me goose bumps.
At 7 a.m., as I was waking up from the anesthesia, my bone
marrow was already aboard a plane heading for an unnamed destination on the
East Coast where the recipient was waiting. 176 punctures in my back and pelvic
bones yielded 1.5 liters of bone marrow, more than enough for the recipient's
transplant. As I lay in the hospital bed recovering from the bone marrow "taps,"
watching the two pints of blood I had "banked" being re-infused into me, the
magnitude of the experience began to sink in.
Now let me back up for a moment. I must confess that I read
none of the materials given to me in preparation for the collection procedure.
I just didn't want to know what I was getting myself into. In hindsight, maybe
this was because I did not want to learn something that might have discouraged
me from moving forward. I felt fully committed and I wanted nothing to stand in
The only question I remember asking in advance was addressed
to Dr. Morie A. Gertz of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Dr. Gertz is a member of the IMF's Scientific
Advisory Board, a frequent faculty presenter at the IMF's patient education
meetings, and an all-round great guy. He told me that a patient with acute
aplastic anemia had a 95% chance of survival after a well-matched donor
transplant. That was all I needed to hear.
Being a donor is a personal choice. While I certainly
appreciated all the support I received from friends and family members throughout
the process, I did not expect the outpouring of positive messages I received
via my Facebook page, many of them from strangers or from people I had lost
touch with over the years.
Oddly, the emotional impact of the entire experience hits
home now, after the fact, more than it did before or during the donation
process. I get choked up when I think of it and, especially, when I think of
that young woman. I hope that the transplant was successful and that it has
given her a fresh start. I catch myself wishing that she has a full and
productive life and, whenever she is up for it, I hope that she will find a way
to be of service to someone else who is in need of help.
The donation was anonymous. While I would love to meet my
recipient, there is no telling if this will ever happen. In the meantime, I
would want her to know a few things about me. I am 53 years old and I have
spent most of my life trying to be of service, trying to make this world a
better place. I work for a wonderful non-profit organization, alongside
colleagues who spend each and every day making the lives of others better and
healthier. I have a newfound empathy and admiration for the myeloma patients I
work with who undergo transplantation as part of their cancer therapy.
I've been told I have a big heart and I really do I care
about helping people. I feel honored and grateful to have had an opportunity to
be a donor. If she ever needs it, I will be here for the same recipient again
in the future. And I have gone on to donate blood and platelets through two
additional organizations in hopes of helping more people.
Emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually I am absolutely
blown away by the experience. And I am still struggling to wrap my mind around
the concept of possibly saving a life. Without a doubt, this was one of the
most important events and accomplishments of my life.