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January 12th, 2009
12:04 PM ET

Getting the call to donate marrow

By Jo Parker
CNN.com producer video/news

The outside of the envelope carried an urgent message: "You're a preliminary bone marrow match."

It'd been about 13 years since I'd joined the National Bone Marrow Registry (www.marrow.org). I'd given a few vials of my blood for testing and then eagerly waited to be called. For a while, I wondered each day whether that would be The Day that I'd get the chance to give my marrow to a stranger in need.

I wanted to do it for Crystal Bradshaw, a bright-eyed South Carolina toddler I met as a reporting intern back in 1985. The 3-year-old had leukemia, and I was assigned to write a story about her family's attempts to raise money for a bone-marrow transplant. As a reporter, I was supposed to maintain an objective distance, but Crystal and her parents and grandparents touched my heart. Before leaving the state for graduate school, I wrote about Crystal's plane trip to her transplant and a possible new life.

I threw myself into school and tried to forget about Crystal. But every so often, I would wonder: Did the transplant work? Is she cancer-free? Did her bouncing curls grow back as beautiful? But I deliberately did not find out what happened to her. I was afraid I would hear things I didn't want to hear.

In 1992, I signed up to become a bone marrow donor. As the technician took my blood, I thought of Crystal and once again wished her well in my heart. If I could just help someone like her, I thought, I would do anything.

As the months passed, the excitement of volunteering faded. I began to feel that my blood must be the most common out there. Why else wouldn't they call?

But each time I moved, I remembered to update my contact information. After all, they still had vials of my blood and might still make a match.

Months turned into years. I married and started a family. I gave birth to my own bright-eyed little girl and banked her cord blood on the off-chance she would one day need it for a lifesaving transplant. Three years after that, a baby boy completed our family. Teddy had his own health issues – allergies to eggs, milk, wheat and nuts – but I was thankful that I hadn't had to face a serious illness like leukemia.

When my youngest was 8 months old, the call came asking me to follow through on the promise I’d made, to consider helping someone in need.

All the donor coordinator could tell me was that I was a preliminary match for a 14-year-old girl with leukemia. Would I be willing to have additional testing to see if I matched in two additional ways?

"Absolutely," I said. "How could someone refuse?"

She said that people often change their minds. Their lives change and they are no longer willing. Some are no longer able because of disability or pregnancy. That’s why the patient isn’t told about a potential match until the donor passes all tests and agrees once again to donate.

I could barely contain my excitement as I had additional blood drawn. I’d already matched on four "markers," and they would be testing two more. I prayed they would match. I prayed for the 14-year-old stranger. And I prayed for Crystal.

The results of the tests were mixed. I matched on one marker, but not the other. The teenager would not get my marrow. I was crushed.

The donor coordinator told me that the additional testing will help things progress more quickly if I’m called again. She thanked me for being willing and said it was possible the girl would find another donor.

And so I settled in to wait for another call. Remembering Crystal’s curls, I bided my time by growing my hair long and donating 10 inches to Locks of Love, which makes free wigs for children who lose their hair after chemotherapy. Maybe it will help another little girl get over the loss of her bouncing curls.

Today Crystal Bradshaw would be in her 20s. Regardless of her fate, her life has had an impact. If I’m ever a final match for someone, that person will owe it all to Crystal.

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