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Saturday, January 30, 2010

As Strong as the Weakest Link

The woman in the chair anxiously clutched her plane ticket. Next to her in the bright and airy atrium of Georgetown University Hospital’s Lombardi Cancer Center were two suitcases. One was black and rectangular, indistinguishable from all the others I regularly see on baggage claim conveyor belts at airports around the country. The other brought tears to my eyes. It was a blue canvas bag with yellow bold type, “National Marrow Donor Program.”

I thought back to the day in July 2000, when I sat by Henry’s bedside in unit 5A – the pediatric bone marrow transplant unit – at University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital. Henry and I were playing with Pokemon figurines and watching Pokemon movies and talking about how cool Pokemon are as we waited for the arrival of the bag of stem cells that held the promise of saving Henry’s life. Because the National Marrow Donor Program requires that the donor and beneficiary do not have the opportunity to know one another’s identity until one year after transplant, we had no idea who the donor was or where in the world she lived.

In between Pokemon battles and unbeknownst to Henry, throughout the day I had been frantically checking the weather in major cities across America and the world, hoping that a storm wouldn’t prevent the cells’ arrival. I imagined a young man couriering those cells from some remote, stormy location far away, running through airports barely making it onto planes, all in the service of saving my boy’s life.  I remembered the words of my college rowing coach, “You’re only as good as your weakest link.” I hoped the guy with the cells would beg his way onto the plane, get to the front of the taxi cab line, and arrive in time.

One year after Henry’s transplant, we signed the required releases enabling Henry to meet his donor. Allen and Henry traveled to Minneapolis for a check-up, batting practice with the Minnesota Twins, and the opportunity to say thank you to the generous woman who had given us yet another year with Henry. Seven months pregnant with our son Joe, I stayed home in Washington, DC with Jack. It was easy for Allen and Henry to meet the donor in Minnesota because that is where she lived. She did not donate her stem cells in Dublin, Ireland or Tel Aviv, Israel, or even in New York City. She donated them at the very same hospital where Henry was waiting for them. In fact, she was in a room just down the hallway. There is much to tell about Henry’s donor but I think I’ll save that for a guest post by Allen since he had the good fortune of meeting her.

My mind was overfull with thoughts of July 6, 2000, when our world was filled with promise, as I walked past the woman at Lombardi into a planning meeting for a Georgetown Hospital-hosted book party for Saving Henry where I could thank all the doctors, nurses, and others who did everything they could to save Henry’s life. I don’t know the identity of the beneficiary of the bag of hope that was about to be placed into the National Marrow Donor Program carrying case, but if I did, I would tell him or her with certainty that the woman transporting it is a strong link in the chain.