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Lessons From Donating Bone Marrow

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"Hold onto me and don't look down," my nurse said as I stood up for the first time after they harvested my bone marrow. My blood pressure had steadily decreased, so I was given a transfusion to bring it back to a healthy level. Now it was starting to rise again, a critical first step to my recovery.

I wasn't sure how much time had passed since the surgery. The last thing I remembered was being wheeled into the operating room where they used an epidural to numb the lower part of my body. The doctor connected me to a machine with a big bag of liquid, looked at me, and asked if I was ready for a few margaritas. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.

For at least an hour, the doctors repeatedly punctured two sides of my pelvic bone with hollow instruments the size of a drinking straw in order to draw 1-2 quarts of soft, spongy marrow from deep within the bone.

Before my dad was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, I knew very little about blood cancers or bone marrow transplants. I read about Robin Roberts' battle with the disease but didn't know much about its progression, the limits of chemotherapy, the risk of infection, or the role of bone marrow in remission.

Now, as my dad's donor, I guess you can say I'm a pro.

Finding a donor was the first hurdle. The fact that I was a 50 percent match, combined with a positive health history, meant that we could pursue a transplant for my dad. The second hurdle is acceptance -- both the recipient's acceptance of the marrow and the cells' acceptance of a new host. The third is avoiding infection with a severely-compromised immune system where something as seemingly innocuous as a common cold could become fatal.

But the harvesting and transplant were significant milestones. If the procedure succeeds, the new marrow will attack my dad's cancer and eventually produce cells that protect against infection, carry oxygen, and clot the blood to prevent excessive bleeding.

As I held onto the nurse and took my first step, my dad was in a hospital room two floors above. The bone marrow harvested just a few hours before was now in a bag, slowly flowing into his blood stream through a port in his chest.

Today, for once, he had not selected the short straw. On this particular day, the donor's experience is more intense than the recipient's -- and my dad admitted to playing several games of sudoku while his entire immune system was being radically recharged.

For me, this experience has been about much more than harvesting and replacing blood cells. And it has been about more than the bond between father and son. It has been a reminder of the interconnectedness of humanity, and the responsibility we have to give back.

What would the world look like if we each thought of one thing -- one big thing -- we could do for one other person? It could be the life of a parent, child, sibling, friend. Or it may be someone we have never even met. In the process of giving bone marrow to my dad, I have discovered that we all have the power to change and possibly save a human life.

Perhaps our hearts and minds, like fresh new cells, can open up a new world of possibility -- both for the one who receives the gift, and for the one who gives.

It won't be easy. It may be painful. But it's infinitely possible.

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