OPINION COLUMNS

What if you could give the gift of life this Christmas?

By Brian Knox | Published Saturday, December 3, 2011

My family received a special package in the mail this week from halfway around the world.

For about the past 10 years, seeing this package arrive around the first week of December has brought smiles to our faces, not just for the gift, or the giver, but what it represents.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

For most, Dec. 7 is a day to remember Pearl Harbor. For me, the day also has added significance. It was that day in 1998 that I donated bone marrow to a man who had leukemia.

I had no idea at the time who it was. The rules said we could write each other, but we couldn’t give too many details about ourselves – names, where we lived, that sort of thing. All of our correspondence went through the National Marrow Donor Program. I’d also get condition updates from a representative of the NMDP at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth where I had my surgery.

After a year, I was finally given my recipient’s information. (Up until that point, my letter was addressed from “the donor” and his was “the recipient.”) His name was Theo, and he lived in Germany with his wife and daughter. For the first time, we could send photos of ourselves and were free to write whatever we wanted.

So each year, we would write each other a letter and send a Christmas gift. I remember being a bit worried in the early years of our correspondence if the package from Germany was running a little late.

“Oh no, maybe his leukemia returned, and he’s not doing well,” I thought, “or maybe he didn’t make it.”

But each year, the package would arrive. And Theo would report he was in good health.

Nearly three years ago, we received the best gift yet – a face-to-face meeting. Theo, his wife, Uschi, and daughter, Anna, made a trip to Texas.

It was a bit surreal when I stood on my front porch with my wife and daughter and saw our longtime friends whom we’d never met walking up our driveway. We spoke different languages, so we couldn’t always understand each other well, although Anna spoke some English and did a fine job translating as best she could.

Over the next few days, we took them sightseeing around North Texas. I thought it was only fitting that we drive by the hospital where my bone marrow was removed before being shipped overseas where it was transplanted in Theo. It took what doctors called a “perfect genetic match” to make that happen.

The work done by the National Marrow Donor Program still amazes me. Much has changed since I joined the registry in 1996. For one thing, the name of the registry has changed from simply the “Bone Marrow Registry” to “Be The Match Registry.” I’m guessing because the program (PBSC) now includes not just bone marrow, but also umbilical cord blood and peripheral blood stem cells.

I also understand that rather than having to give numerous blood samples for testing for the genetic match, now a simple cheek swab will do.

Here are some other facts to think about, provided by the National Marrow Donor Program:

  • More than 10,000 patients in the U.S. each year are diagnosed with diseases for which a marrow or cord blood transplant from an unrelated donor may be their best or only hope of a cure.
  • About 70 percent of patients in need of a transplant will not have a matching donor in their family.
  • The registry now includes more than 9 million potential donors and nearly 145,000 available cord blood units.
  • In 2010, the NMDP facilitated more than 5,200 marrow, PBSC and cord blood transplants in 2010.

If you have already joined the registry, thank you. You never know when you might get a phone call one day saying, “You might be a match.”

For more information on the National Marrow Donor Program or joining the registry, visit http://www.marrow.org.

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