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[whitespace] Down to My Bones

Dear Grace,

That's probably not your name, but when I thought about writing you a letter, I realized I wanted to call you something. Earlier, the name "Grace" came into my mind, so that is what I'm calling you for now.

I'm writing this on the evening before I go into surgery. Finding the words is more difficult than I had thought it would be. But I'll start with what comes to mind first, which is: Thank you.

Four years ago, in college, I registered my bone marrow. It was easy enough to do; the Heart of America clinic had been set up near where I walked to classes. Like donating blood, which I had been doing regularly, it was a form of charity that required little time and no money--just right for a third-year student.

A nurse at the clinic took a quick blood sample and told me it would be tested and filed away in the registry. It could be several years before they found someone in need of marrow who matched my type, she said. I might never hear from them again.

So the call this summer came out of deep left field. Somehow, Heart of America had traced me through several erratic changes of address and phone number, and here was a woman on the line telling me that my marrow was a preliminary match for a patient who needed it; asking if I was still interested in donating.

My immediate answer was yes.

I had plenty of time to reconsider. My blood had to be tested again to make sure it was the closest possible match. After that was confirmed, I had to drive down to the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center for an X-ray, an EKG, and an "informed consent" meeting, where a doctor would sit down with me and make sure I knew what I was getting myself into. My wife, Marla, was less than thrilled at the prospect of handing me into the clutches of medical science, especially if it wasn't, strictly speaking, necessary. Because I was clearly going to go through with it anyway, she relented, although she still didn't like the idea.

I wasn't sure why I felt so committed. I didn't know the patient, and because of confidentiality laws I still don't. I named her Grace when I started writing a letter. All I had been told was that she was 36 years old and had chronic myelogenous leukemia. Chemotherapy could slow the progress of her disease, I was told, but only a bone marrow transplant could cure it. My marrow was the best shot at saving her life.

The world is always asking for help, but I had never been asked so directly or dramatically before. I worried about that; I wondered if my enthusiasm was high just because saving a life was sexier than ladling soup at the mission once a week. I didn't want to do this for the wrong reasons. Marla helped put my anxiety in perspective when she pointed out that it was my marrow, not my motives, that mattered to Grace.

"Harvesting" is the rather pretty term that hospitals use for the process of collecting bone marrow. Donors get to choose between regional anesthesia, which numbs only the crucial area, and general anesthesia, which knocks you out cold. What a choice. I have no memory at all, fortunately, of the needles that sucked--excuse me, harvested--about two and a half pints of marrow out of my hipbones. What I remember is lying in bed much later that day with a thick pressure bandage across the small of my back, smiling through the haze of codeine at Marla, who brought me irises and wouldn't leave my side.

And now, a week later, I'm slowly getting back to work. My hipbones are still sore at the collection sites, but less so all the time. I'm trying not to expect too much, too soon.

Meanwhile I have finished my letter:

    . . . What I gave, I gave because I could; because it was needed; because it made me feel stronger to give it. And because it may help you to feel stronger, too. That is my wish. Feel stronger, Grace.

--Yosha Bourgea

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From the November 11-17, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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