“Does it hurt?” is usually the first thing that people want to know when they ask me about bone marrow donation. My answer is always the same – “not really”. I’ve experienced more pain in the dental chair. Any discomfort felt during the donation was overpowered by the anticipation and hope that that small bag of marrow might save someone’s life. Looking at it that way, it felt good!
I went into the National Marrow Registry (now the Be the Match registry) my senior year at Davidson College shortly after Project Life began its initial drive on campus. I asked myself when I considered getting typed on the marrow registry, “When in my lifetime will I have the chance to save someone’s life?” Maybe never again. Here was the chance. It was a unique opportunity to serve unlike any other I’d experienced during college. Project Life participants were getting typed not to help someone they knew, but someone they didn’t. Helping with the hopeful gift of life.
I’ve been asked if I was scared, nervous, or afraid once I got the call a year later that I’d been matched with someone in need of bone marrow. I didn’t feel any of those things. I felt lucky, fortunate, honored, blessed. Those were my feelings. Most of the other donors I’ve spoken with in the years since have all said the same thing. To know that a cancer patient looking at difficult options for dealing with their illness, now has a ray of hope because of you is a wonderful feeling!
The patient who needed me back then was a seven month old baby. Because of Project Life and all that followed that initial drive at Davidson, he is a healthy, strong 17 year old today. That feels good.
In November 2010, many of the leaders, donors, recipients, and supporters of Project Life during her 20-year history gathered together at Davidson College for a celebration of a great journey. This video includes interviews from a 1995 TV program created by channel WCNC in Charlotte, along with updated reflections and interviews from other participants within the Project Life Movement.
To watch part two, please click here.
In the spring of 2004 — and as Davidson College prepared to celebrate the 15th annual Project Life donor recruitment drive — Davidson alumna and current author, Rosie Molinary, wrote a beautiful piece about the “community of dreamers” who’d help lead the movement through the earliest years. As she vividly describes it in her article: “While there is not a donor for every patient, nor does every donation succeed, Project Life is about increasing those odds every year. It is about how patients are able to look cancer in the face and bully it with courage and opportunity.”
If we all took the next 5 seconds to think of one person in our lives who seems to brighten up every room, who can meet literally no stranger, and whose effervescent energy is pervasive to the point of exhaustion, I bet we could all conjure up the image of that one person and find ourselves chuckling together at their antics and their beauty. When I think of such a person in my life, my mind immediately runs to my father, a man who in his 59 years on this earth lived a life so full it seemed like 100, a life full of people, smiles, and outreach to those he hardly knew. That phrase “he could talk to a brick wall” was never so well illustrated as in the man I loved so dearly. No one on earth was a stranger to him and every single human being he saw was worth a smile, a chat, a hug. To describe him as an extrovert would be the understatement of the century. I can hardly illustrate the true extent of my father’s gregariousness in a blog post, but I can try to explain the strange way that his struggles and triumphs changed my life course.
My father’s 9 year battle with leukemia was a long and arduous one, but in February of 2009, it was time for desperate measures—a bone marrow transplant. 70% of patients who need a transplant match do not find one in their family and instead search the National Marrow Donor Registry, a database full of individuals who have said, “perhaps I can be of some help, let me serve those who might need me.” There are 8 million people who have joined that database and have been listed by their particular “type.” And yet still no perfect match existed for my father in that database. 8 million people is an incredible number, but our world is 6 billion. And in that 6 billion are perhaps thousands (maybe millions) of potential matches, potential connections that could save lives.
My father’s less-than-perfect option couldn’t help save his life, but the idea that there are countless possibilities, countless options, and a multitude of people to reach has instilled me with a passion to continue trying to find matches for everyone that needs one. I’m on a mission to give hope, to challenge my communities, to make it possible to connect someone who “has” with someone who “needs.” As the coordinator of Project Life here at Davidson, my goal is to have as many people as possible “get typed” and add their names to that database of people who have committed to being beacons of hope. We typed 143 people in November, and we’re not stopping. More than 30 people typed at Davidson College over the last 20 years have donated marrow to a patient in need and have saved lives.
My dad’s gregariousness, enthusiasm, and almost indescribable desire to reach out to every human being, every one of world’s most precious creatures, did not dwindle when he drew his last breath. My dad’s infectiousness and need to be connected to our fellow creatures found its way into my being and is propelling me to find new ways to own up to that legacy.
I have hope to hold on to, possibilities to believe in, and a passion to work for. Though some may disagree with Thomas Friedman’s description, the world is flat, and we are in fact so connected with one another and so capable of bringing change throughout our world. I received a transplant of energy when my dad received his bone marrow transplant. That energy pervades me. Through my dad’s death I found an employment, a purpose, and I have realized this part of a grander plan. And it is in these realizations that I may give thanks for the darker hours. For in that darkness comes the light.
Along with the Classes of 1979, 1995, and others – the Class of Project Life gathered for a big celebration for two decades of signing up potential marrow and tissue donors to aid all those suffering from life threatening diseases. Past coordinators of the annual student drives, donors, recipients, and many others gathered to share stories and express appreciation for how the Project Life experience has transformed their lives. The current campus coordinator of Project Life – now in its 20th year – has profound and particularly compelling reasons for devoting herself to this movement. Read more about her story here.