The Right Thing To Do

by Lisa Wedemeyer

I lost a friend recently. Her name was Mary. I never met her. I spoke to her once and we corresponded about a half dozen times or so over the past year. That's it. In fact, on so many levels, I did not know Mary at all, and yet we were connected in a way that few people are. She was my recipient. I was her donor. Our connection was bone marrow.

When I donated a blood sample and officially joined the National Bone Marrow Registry, it just seemed like the thing to do. I saw a flier on a streetside fruit stand. I did not know the person for whom the drive was being sponsored. I just went and gave a little blood. Painless. The workers told me that the chances were very slim that I would ever get called. But I did. I went to give more blood for further antigen matching, and they told me again that chances are I would not get called again. It took longer this time, but I did. More tests, more matching. And then nothing for a while. Until the call that told me that the "miracle match" had happened, was I still willing to donate?

Wow. All this time I never really thought it would happen, truthfully, I did not give it much thought at all. Now I had a decision to make. Though it really wasn't much of a decision. I knew in my heart what I would do all along. The blood center people gave me lots of information, lots of physical tests to make sure that I was healthy. My husband was worried more than I (he is in the medical field, and knew more about every little thing that could go wrong, no matter how remote). When all was said and done, I got the papers, the Consent to Donate, and I signed. Because the bottom line was, how could I not?

Shortly afterward, I spent a couple days in the hospital to donate the marrow. It wasn't the easiest thing I have ever done. There were some unexpected complications caused by anesthesia, but I got through them. I experienced some discomfort. People had told me ahead of time that it would feel like I had taken a hard fall on the ice, landing on my butt - that was pretty accurate! But, you know, I gave birth to two children and in comparison the bone marrow retrieval was a breeze, complications and all. Within two weeks I felt 80% fine, with in a month it was like nothing had happened.

Physically, that is really the end of the story on my part. But I knew that somewhere there was a woman who was just starting her battle. When you donate marrow to an unrelated recipient, they really stress confidentiality of both the donor and the recipient. I knew my recipient was a female, I knew her physical problem, and I knew her age. That was it. No name, no location, nothing else. I wrote a short unaddressed note that accompanied my marrow. A few weeks later, I received a note back. Actually it was a copy. Letters between donors and recipients are screened and they "white out" any personal references and then make a copy to pass on. But I tell you, it was one of the most wonderful things I had ever read. It made the connection between us seem more real, more personal.

In subsequent months we wrote to each other a number of times. We even came up with code names for each other since we did not like the impersonal greeting of "Dear Donor" or "Dear Recipient". I was Cleopatra (Cleo for short), and she was Joan (for Joan of Arc). In each letter we learned more about each other. It is amazing how much you can tell about yourself without giving any specific locations or names. Towards the end of the year, we were each trying to sneak in hints about where we lived. She mentioned something about apple picking and fresh maple sugar (I was sure she was in Vermont) and I wrote about going to see a well known Broadway musical hoping she would guess I was in the New York area. We finally got caught by our respective contacts and had to keep our last letters more straight forward. I happily anticipated each letter "Joan" sent, it was fun to hear from her, plus her letters gave me some hope that the marrow transplant was working.

Exactly one year after the transplant, I got a call from the contact at my blood center. She had "Joan's" real name and address. Her name was Mary, a simple, wonderful name. She lived in New York State. So much for my Vermont guess, at least I was close! I knew that Mary was not home, she was at the hospital where the transplant had occurred for her one year check up. Later on in the evening, my husband answered the phone. He turned to me with a smile and said "It's Joan of Arc. For you."

We were finally voice to voice. We spoke for twenty minutes - it was wonderful! We filled in a lot of names and places to each other. We joked about appearing on television together - she wanted to do "Geraldo", I said it was "Rosie" or nothing! We decided we would make plans to meet when she returned from the hospital. She had a slight lung infection but was hoping to leave soon. When I got off the phone, I thought of a million other things to ask, but I knew we would meet each other shortly. I sent off a Valentine's card with a picture of my children. It was a pleasure to write "Dear Mary".

Exactly one week from when we spoke, I got another phone call. This time it was my contact. I knew right away something was wrong. Mary had died. But how could this be, we had spoken, we were going to get together. I didn't thing it was going to necessarily be a fairy tale ending, but not this! Not so soon. I cried and cried. For Mary, for myself, for her poor family who I didn't even know, but who had been through so much.

A few days later, my contact called back to see how I was doing. She told me I had given Mary a year she would not have had. She told me that Mary's family at least had the comfort of knowing everything had been done, no stone left unturned, no "what if we had found a marrow match". I know all this, and I have no regrets. I was blessed with the opportunity to try to make a saving difference in someone's life. Most people are not given that chance. I feel fortunate. I wish that Mary and I could have become old friends, celebrating life. Instead, I lost a new friend, one that I will never forget.

This account appears on TransWeb by permission of the author. All rights reserved. It appeared in Newsweek magazine (April 28, 1997), in the My Turn column under the heading "The Right Thing to Do".