This weekend was completely worth the sore throat and laryngitis from which I am currently suffering. Getting on a plane is always the sure-fire way for me to catch a cold (sigh), but I would endure a lot worse to witness the miracle that God wrought through my husband.
In 2013 my husband was called out of the blue while he and I were lunching at work by a woman named Liz. My husband, much to my annoyance, always answers his cell phone for every person or entity that calls him, no matter what we are doing or where we are, however I am so glad he took this call. Liz introduced herself and probably gave a thorough explanation as to the reason of her call, but my husband, as a typical man was only half-listening. After some moments, he passed me the phone with a bemused and befuddled look on his face, and said, and I quote, “This woman said I signed some papers in the Navy agreeing to give my stencils to people. Can you please see what she wants?” Now I, with a bemused and befuddled look on my face and suppressed laughter in my voice, inquired of Liz as to her request of my husband.
“Your husband signed up to be a bone marrow donor while he was in the Navy. We have a patient with whom he seems to be a good match. I was calling to ask if he might consider donating stem cells for her.”
She went on to explain that the patient was a 28 year old woman with leukemia and without a donor she would most likely die. Although my husband signed up for the program, he was not obligated to donate if he changed his mind. They would be flying us to Washington, DC for a week to have the procedure completed. It would not be a surgery, she said, but similar to donating blood, but somewhat more involved. He would get a daily shot of some kind of medication that would cause his bones to release stem cells into his bloodstream; after several days, they would harvest the stem cells by cycling his plasma through a machine and separating the stem cells from his blood, which would be cycled back into his body. This process would take about 3 hours.
I explained to my husband the process and he was concerned at first about things people without illness get concerned with: could he afford to miss the time from work? Would it hurt? Will he get sick himself without his “stencils”? But he soon asked himself what would happen to the girl if he didn’t do this? He was explained that finding a donor was rare and probably her only and last shot at life.
I could say that his sweet nature and generosity won out in the end (because he is the sweetest, most generous man), but really it was just his humanity. He was the only hope this girl had at getting a second chance, God had given him so much, including wonderful health, and he could not say no. He wouldn’t be able to sleep at night because he would have felt like he murdered her. He didn’t feel guilted into it; he felt it was his duty as a human and a Christian.
So we flew to DC and were put up in the Marriott, given a car to use, and free meals at the hotel. Not a bad gig, especially considering I was just along for the ride. The first few days he was feeling well enough after the shots to see the sights. We saw the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, a few museums, and the White House. By the third day, he was feeling sore and achy and just wanted to lay in bed. He was content enough to allow me to watch a marathon of House Hunters and another of River Monsters, so I tried my best not to fuss.
The fourth or fifth day, I cannot remember which, they did the blood-cycling thing and we watched movies in a little bed at the clinic. He wasn’t really in excessive pain, but he did feel some flu-like symptoms of general soreness, fatigue, and achiness. We flew home Friday or Saturday and he was back at work on Monday, feeling almost normal. He was completely back to himself after a few days and he kept saying that what the girl was going through must be a lot worse, so he wasn’t going to complain too much.
We were not allowed to have any other information about the patient, but we were told that she was given the transplant successfully and we were called again in a few months’ time to be told that she was doing much better and things were looking good. After about a year, Liz called back and said that we could sign a release to exchange information with the patient. She explained the pros and cons—it can be heartbreaking to get to know someone and it turns out they don’t get better; we might feel pressure to donate again if it is needed and wouldn’t be able to hide behind anonymity anymore; she may not wish to know about us and that might be upsetting for us. However, for my husband, he never thought twice about it. He wanted to know her, if she wished it. So be it if she needed another transplant. If it was God’s will for her to leave this world, despite everyone else’s best efforts, he wanted to know her while he could. There was already an unspoken bond—I suppose something similar as a mother has to her unborn baby—they were connected in very deep ways that were not only biological, but spiritual.
Luckily, Erica must have felt the same connection, because after some weeks my husband received a call from her. She gushed her thanks and told her journey and they talked for hours. Turns out they have similar backgrounds: both immigrated here when they were about 3 years old—she from Honduras, he from Mexico– and grew up in small farm towns and worked in agriculture; they come from large families—he is one of 8, she is one of 12—and both are the second to last in line. She and her husband also struggled for years to have a baby and they have one son. Both of their moms are old-school Hispanic ladies that command respect despite their diminutive size. Even funnier was the fact that her blood type was now matched to his and they share DNA. Biologically, they are more like siblings than their real siblings are. We joked that her newfound energy came from him and now he was all tapped out, and that she would need to cut her fingernails twice a week like he does.
We would speak with Erica every month or two on the phone, but never saw her in person or even a photo of her. We made plans for her and her family to come visit in Florida and take in all the touristy sites, but she decided to organize a bone marrow drive in her hometown first and asked if we could join her. The University of Iowa helped her coordinate the event and agreed to fly my husband, myself, our son, and his mother there to visit her. We had to promise not to meet her until the bone marrow drive the next day after our arrival, so we killed time by wistfully wishing for our own white wood-frame farmhouse with a red barn and patch of corn and teased our own Colonel Jackson about taking a trip down the Mighty Mississipp’ (see Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton for all you Yanks:-) )
The first time we met Erica, she was explaining her story to the news cameras and a small crowd of people at the public library in Muscatine, Iowa. She stopped mid-sentence and embraced each of us, crying. My husband even had to blink back tears. It is hard to know what to say in a moment like that. Here is this woman who almost certainly would not be standing there had my husband not donated stem cells, but at the same time, it was nothing…it was the least he could do, it was the ONLY thing to do…it was not a great sacrifice on his part, but at the same time, it must be truly something to know that you were that necessary to someone else. It must be truly something to know that you were the instrument God used to make a miracle. In a way, he was just the jar that held the water that turned to wine, or the staff that parted the Red Sea—just a physical object God used to display His mercy and might—but should we all be so lucky to be used that way. The wedded couple at Cana probably treasured that crockery above all their other worldly possessions and I bet Moses never lost that staff. Erica and Elmer know that God did all the work, but it is so nice to have the tangible sacramental of His grace to have a constant reminder of His love for us.
Erica took us on a tour to visit the hospital and staff that cared for her for the many, many months she was receiving treatment. It is awe-inspiring and humbling to know that there are so many people that make it their life’s work to help others in their very darkest hours and that God gives them the knowledge, heart, and determination to help see them through.
Her family insisted on making us a fantastic meal of authentic pupusas and tres leches on our final day there. Although not a Eucharist, we were reminded of how Jesus is with us when two or three are gathered together in His name and how the disciples in Acts broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.
It was a beautiful, never-to-be-forgotten weekend. Praise God for Erica’s continued good health and beautiful spirit! I am sure the Holy Spirit is working through her to reach others—both with her never-wavering faith and with her hope for a cure for others. Praise God for people like my husband, who take to heart that what he does for the least of his brethren, he does also for Christ. Praise God for His mercy, love, and grace…even our dark times in this sinful world can be used to show His love and we are able to offer up our suffering as Christ did for others.
I encourage anyone and everyone that is between the ages of 18-44 and is eligible to please prayerfully consider signing up to be a donor at Be The Match. The chances of being selected are small, but you just may be called to be the miracle needed for someone…and you never know when you may be in need of a miracle yourself someday.