Sunday, November 28, 2010

I remember when the call came that Feb. morning. My brother Scott doesn’t usually call me in the mornings, but I was touched that he remembered my anniversary. Instead, he blurted out, I have leukemia.

It took some time to compute. Scott’s my older brother, my hero, my conscience, and he heads what’s left of our family even from as far away as Pasadena.

What followed for the next four years were the all too familiar rounds of chemotherapy and remission. When the chemo lost its effectiveness, clinical trials with their own horrific side effects were next. They didn’t work, and then the second call came.

In Scott’s inimitable way he asked if I would mind getting tested as a bone marrow donor. It had come to that. He needed a bone marrow transplant. This was the final option to save his life, and I was his best chance for a related match. And that’s exactly what I was going to do. Save his life.

I eagerly awaited his call with the good news. It was not to be. Not only was I not a match, I wasn’t even close. I was devastated, and felt I had let Scott down. I couldn’t begin to imagine how he felt.

It meant that Scott had to sign up on the International Bone Marrow Registry in the hopes of finding a close or perfect match where the odds could be something like 1 in 13 million. He asked me to go on the international donor registry in case I could help someone else.

And then Pasadena exploded with efforts to help Scott find a match. There were newspaper articles, his realty company and several others held bone marrow drives for him. His son solicited his 500+ friends on Facebook. Friends and relatives sent away for testing kits in the hopes of being a match. The registry provided 3 possible matches, of which only one proved to be viable. Further testing would be required to find out just how close a match this person was. And then, if he/she would even be willing to go through with it.

The whole matching program is protective of people’s identities on both sides and all we were told that this potential donor was a 21 year old girl from abroad. We prayed. We also wondered what made a girl of 21 go on the bone marrow registry- there must’ve been a loss in her family.

Testing proceeded. Scott had to undergo testing to make sure he could withstand the procedure. Five years ago the odds of success on a patient over 50 were not even good enough to warrant the transplant. Scott was 61at the time. Medicine had come that far. On the other side of the world, testing continued on our possible donor examining the compatibility of her blood cells. We waited. Time was not on our side.

Confirmation of a perfect match finally came and a date was set.

Scott and his donor were allowed to communicate anonymously. The letters were screened on both sides to prevent any clue of identity or location being revealed.

With each letter, we tried to guess where she was from by any clue possible.

The day of transplant was here. They call it day 0.His new birthday. Everyday he was alive after that started from there. We waited anxiously for the new stem cells. And then there it was- life in a bag.

This life-saving procedure consisted of hooking up a bag of her blood to his IV. We were able to see the little stem-cell powerhouses flowing through the tubes into Scott’s arm.

Now the real fight had begun, and for the next year his body would wage battle as her young, healthy cells began to destroy all of his red and white blood cells and replace them with her own.

By the way, did I mention that Scott lived alone? His son, Matt, was finishing his senior year at U of C in Boulder, I lived in Chicago, and his ex-wife was adjusting to her new life in Scottsdale. Ultimately, Valorie, his ex, dropped everything to help him through the first few weeks and ended up staying over a year.

Little did we know that on the ‘other side of the world’ a young girl’s life was changed forever. Five extra minutes. That’s all it took. She was a 19 years old college student on her way home for the Thanksgiving holidays. She knew about the blood drive being held at the student union and had planned to go, but really wanted to beat traffic. She debated whether to go or just skiddadle home. She swung by. The swipe of her mouth took less than a minute and she went off on her merry way.

Two years later, she was on a run when she got the call. The call she says changed her life. She was a match. Told to talk it over with family and friends, she didn’t have to. It became crystal clear that she now had a purpose in the world. Another three months passed before all of the testing was finished and the day of donation arrived. Her family gathered around her as she lay in a bed with simply a blood line attached to her arm. She filled up a few bags of blood and it was whisked away to some place across the world. All she could do now was hope it ‘had the right stuff’ to do whatever it was supposed to do.

Life as she knew it continued, friends, running, school, and jellybeans, but she was now a celebrity in her home town. A day didn’t go by that someone asked if she’d heard any news or had learned who her donee was.

One year later. After a year of utter hell, in and out of the hospital, suffering severe GVHD, (Graph vs Host disease) Scott’s scans and biopsies showed he was completely free of leukemia. This tough little cookie’s stem cells had overpowered Scott’s bad bone marrow, and began to make new, clean blood in Scott’s cells.

The one year mark also signified the end of the anonymity of both the donor and donee if they so chose.

Courtney Shapiro from Marietta, Georgia meet your blood brother Scott Kleiman from Pasadena, California.

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