by Tia Jensen
Donor number 79 was my bone marrow donor. I received his stem cells via a line placed near my heart. They traveled by heartbeat and eventually seated in my bones. These gifted cells would go on to build new blood components for me.
I was told he was young, 26 years old — younger than my oldest child, yet older than my son and other daughter. His anonymous donation was crucial to my survival. He, one of many faceless donors, generously contributed bits of himself to help build blood and vital components of blood for me. I will carry my bone marrow donor with me forever. I am a chimera. My blood now is he/she, him/me. We exist together.
I also carry the gifts of 87 others. Seventy-eight donors got me through the five months of chemotherapy, providing pooled blood products, platelets, fibrinogen factors, whole irradiated blood and blood plasma. Nine more donors got me through months of recovery after transplant. Blood donors whose blood soldiered on for me. This war we fought together. Leukemia. Blood cancer. It took a small army to keep me alive.
My story starts in October 2018. I had been putting my garden to bed for winter. I was overly tired and dropped a trellis on my ankle. The immediate swelling sent me to the emergency room. I thought I had a broken ankle. My leg was covered in bruises. It took less than an hour for them to diagnose me. My ankle was fine, but I was bleeding too much, my contusion was enlarging, my white cell counts were skyrocketing, my clotting factors low. On a transport cot in an ambulance, watching the desert of Eastern Washington retreat in the back window, I realized it was the first time I ever traveled the mountain pass facing backwards.
I woke in Seattle to chemotherapy nurses dressed in near space suits, layers to protect them from the chemical poisons pumping in my veins. Tiny clots were traveling throughout my blood to all the organs in my body. The clots were eating up all my platelets; I was in danger of bleeding out. New terminology was being thrown at me. I was struggling to understand. I realized I might be dying.
When the next bag came, I asked, “What’s that?”
The nurse answered with straight facts, “This is a pooled bag of platelets, five donors.”
Five people who allowed a needle into their vein, who donated to save a life. My life.
I asked the nurse to put five tally marks on the hospital white board in my room. I wanted to find a way to pay it back. I was overwhelmed by their love and compassion, these precious gifts from complete strangers. I was going to keep count.
Each day, I received more and more blood to support me as I fought back the leukemia.
Each day I asked for the numbers on the bags. The nurses kept tally. When I went home to recover after living eight months in temporary housing next to the hospital, I transferred the marks to a calendar. I tried to keep track of the tally. I went through many rounds of chemo, many hospitalizations to reach the marrow donation – donation number 79. The nurses said no one had asked them to keep tally before.
How can I thank all these strangers? Each donation was life saving, each donation getting me to the next day and the next step toward recovery.
How can I express what it is like to come home to my children, my husband, my friends and extended family when it all seemed so unlikely? To find myself present for birthdays and celebrations, gatherings I thought I wouldn’t live to see? To again grow strong enough to replant my garden? To attend a high school musical? To spend another Christmas on the coast with my family?
A blood donation is an unrecognized expression of love that many take for granted. The blood is only there, when it is needed, because someone has selflessly volunteered their time, shown up at a clinic and endured the slight discomfort of a needle. It is an act of compassion. It is an act of hope. I am forever in debt for the kindness and generosity of complete strangers, the sharing of something so precious. Their blood seeded my second chance at life.
Blood donors, thank you for the donations. Thank you for your generosity and courage.
Thank you for the giving me my life back.