Painting by Lindsay Dailey
hen he whispered in my ear, “Thank you for giving me my daughter back,” I knew that the sentiment came from the most pure place of love in his heart.
It all started in the fall of 2002, when I was a sophomore. One day I received an e-mail from a fellow USD student looking for a bone marrow match for a friend with leukemia. To be perfectly honest, I am not the type of person who reads mass e-mails with great diligence, but this really touched me, so I decided to become a registered bone marrow donor. It was easy: I joined that week by providing a blood sample via finger prick. Sadly, it turned out that I was not a match.
Five years later, as a 25-year-old graduate student living in Los Angeles, I’d nearly forgotten all about it. Then one day, the phone rang. It seemed that a person was suffering from acute myeloid leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant to have a chance a survival. I was a perfect match. Of course, I felt compelled to help, but when I told friends about the call — including some working in the health care field — their responses were negative. They all pointed out how painful bone marrow donation is; not uncommonly, they believed the process was surgical and invasive. None of them was aware that there is another donation method called peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC).
After further testing, I heard nothing for three months, and assumed my blood cells weren’t a perfect match after all. Then I got another phone call from the City of Hope telling me they wanted me to donate through the PBSC method. I went into the hospital for a daylong physical to ensure I was healthy enough to donate. The National Marrow Donor Program staff gave me a private orientation, and I also learned two things about the recipient: she was 45 years old and a female. That was all I was allowed to know.
The procedure was non-surgical and took about five hours. Any feelings of mild discomfort were eliminated when I looked around at the cancer patients around me receiving transfusions.
Within a few months, the news came that the transplant had been successful; my stem cells were quickly healing this unknown woman. The rules of the National Marrow Donor Program require anonymity for one year; however, donor and recipient may exchange letters within the first year if both parties agree. We struck up a written correspondence and I learned that finding the transplant was her last chance at survival; she’d spent over 70 nights in the hospital over the past year.
Finally, in June 2009, I learned her name: Rhonda Walker Christensen of Dallas, Texas. A wife and mother of two children, Rhonda had a family and led an accomplished professional life as a research scientist in education. A month later, I flew to Dallas to meet her for the first time. As soon as I stepped off the plane and into the terminal, I was bombarded with news media and a crowd of people, but all I saw was Rhonda, with her large yellow “Welcome Elizabeth” sign.
Tears welled for us both when we embraced. Rhonda introduced me to her husband, sons and parents. Her father’s choked-up thanks sunk deep, and I immediately felt the gravity of my decision to donate. I also instantaneously became part of the Christensen family. They took me back to their home, where I stayed the weekend. For days, I sat around the kitchen table with her parents, her brother, her sister, her children, her husband, her brother and her sister-in law. I spent time getting to know her close circle of friends and neighbors.
After that weekend, I returned home to Los Angeles, leaving behind this second family. Through journals I recorded all of the thoughts, feelings and details that I wanted to be sure not to forget. For example, when I was introduced to her 11-year-old nephew Noah, he put his arms around my waist, hugged me tightly and said, “Thank you for saving my aunt.” My heart just about broke. Later that weekend, he composed a song on the piano for me and played it for us.
Since then, I’ve been volunteering with the National Marrow Donor Program at the City of Hope Cancer Center and have coordinated a marrow registration drive at USC, where I earned my master’s in education. Rhonda was able to make the trip to Los Angeles to host it with me.
The impact of one act is truly remarkable. I’ve never felt more strongly that the true lesson behind giving is that it is a gift in itself. There is a deep sense of joy in knowing that other people’s lives are better because of me.
To learn how you can register for the National Marrow Donor Program, go to www.marrow.org. The painting above by Lindsay Dailey was commissioned by Rhonda Walker Christensen as a thank you gift for her donor, Liz Jordan.