Meeting My Recipient

Something really neat happened to me. I got to meet “my girl”, the recipient of my stem cell donation. Followers of my Blog/Facebook/Twitter know that last spring I was contacted by the National Marrow Donor Program that I was a match. All I could know about my matched recipient was that she was a thirteen year old girl with Fanconi Anemia (FA). About a month later I flew to San Francisco to donate my stem cells via PBSC (Peripheral Blood Stem Cell) Donation. I was given a couple brief updates on the recipient’s status a few months later “Transplant a success. Patient doing well with minor set-backs.” I then had to wait a year to find out who “my girl” was, and if the family would want to meet me. Our Anniversary date came. I emailed my NMDP contact for the form, filled it out and sent it back. About a week later I received her name and address – Jordan Flynn. She lived in Maine: the opposite side of the country from me. I found the clip I saw on Rock Center that I thought might be her and watched it again. It was her! I bought a cute card and mailed it off to let her know I had been thinking about her, hoped she was feeling well and I was up for contact if they were. About a week later I received a message and friend request on Facebook from her mom, Doreen.

“Hi Katy! You don’t know me but you and I have something in common, my daughter Jordan! You did a very selfless act last April by donating your bone marrow and by doing that you saved my daughter’s life. Words cannot describe the gratitude I have for what you have done. Because of you I get to see my daughter grow into a young lady, I get to see her enjoy her High School years and finally enjoy being a teenager!! I am forever indebted for the opportunity you have given her. If you hadn’t donated your marrow Jordan wouldn’t be with us today. You have no idea how much this means to me and her family. I hope that this can be the beginning of a new friendship. I do appreciate you allowing Sloan Kettering to give me your contact information as we have been very anxious to know the identity of the person who we owe so very much to! Hope to hear from you soon!  – Doreen”

We started a daily back and forth conversation on Facebook getting to know each other bit by bit. I shared my blog with her and read her online journal about what they went through during that year of transplant and recuperation. It was so satisfying to know that the transplant graft went well, but so scary to find out there were a couple infections developed afterwards that were close calls. The PBSC collection was on Monday, May 7th. She received my cells on Tuesday May 8th. I was back to work on Wednesday May 9th. Not so easy for her: Jordan was in the hospital or Ronald McDonald house for something like nine months before she could go home to her family and normal life, her mother Doreen by her side the entire time. This humbled me.

I also received multiple Facebook messages from their friends and family thanking me. They all made me feel so good. This message Jordan posted meant the very most:

“Thanks everyone, for the birthday wishes! So blessed I was given another chance to be on this planet today. And thank you, Katy, for saving my life so I could be here to celebrate my 15th birthday! – Jordan”

There was an out-pouring of support and gratitude. A couple weeks into our online friendship, Doreen invited us to fly out to surprise Jordan. I couldn’t write about it or post anything about my excitement then because I didn’t want to ruin the surprise. But now that we are back from our trip I can reflect upon it. From start to finish, this donation process has truly been one of the best experiences of my life.

My husband couldn’t go with us to Maine, he is a corporate accountant and July is his hell month of fiscal year end reports, which means vacations are impossible for him at that time. But honestly I knew he was ok to stay back, he’s not that sociable. So my boys and I, and my mom who had accompanied me on the journey to San Francisco last year, flew out to Portland, Maine where Doreen met us at the airport. I felt like I already knew her, so was never nervous to meet her until that moment I texted her from baggage claim that we were ready and saw her cross the street to greet us. Oh boy, here goes the butterflies and emotions. But much to my surprise I didn’t cry. A nice long hug later we were in the car for a 30 or 40 minute drive to their house. Jordan had no idea we were coming. We followed Doreen into her front door where Jordan gave a quizzical look from the kitchen. “Do you recognize who this is?” Her mom asked her. “No,” she replied tentatively. And a few seconds later when she realized it was me, her face light up in an OMG surprise and she ran forward to hug me.

Jordan was adorable. She’s very small and thin and a little pale, but has beautiful blue eyes with long lashes, a few cute freckles and a great smile. Her hair is still growing back from when it fell out after the chemotherapy she had prior to transplant. She had the cutest little ringlet curls hitting the back of her neck – not her pre-transplant style perhaps but so cute everybody wants to touch them. She was a normal teenager. Most importantly she wasn’t sick.

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The family was very laid back going about their normal routine which made it feel like we were longtime friends stopped by for a casual visit. It was nice. They have a lovely home on a quiet dead end street backed up to a gorgeous natural reserve thick with trees. We visited on the deck while my boys swam in their pool for a couple hours. Then we headed off to our hotel to rest up from our long night’s flight while they took care of some last minute wedding arrangements. That’s right – wedding – we were there on that particular weekend to be guests at their wedding: Doreen (mom) and Shawn (step-Dad). We checked into the hotel and had lunch. It was nice to lay down for a bit, shower and brush my teeth. I’m sure we were quite the sight coming fresh from 12-hours of red-eye flight where makeup had long-before worn off and hair gone flat. The Flynn’s picked us back up a few hours later to go back to their house for dinner. We got to meet the rest of the kids, 8 total in the combined family: Abby, Sammy, James, Jordan, Jacob, Jorga & Julia, and Ally. Wow, that’s a lot of dirty socks (or maybe my boys are the only ones that leave them all over the house driving me crazy). That evening we had pizza & beer and visited as more and more of their friends and family arrived. It felt so normal. Family and friends, running around the house, half of them were trying to get things accomplished for the big event the next day, the other half sitting and laughing and telling stories. It was a great way to gradually sink into the groove so that before I knew it they felt like my family and friends. Actually, it was nicer because everyone was so happy to meet us. It was amazing to watch Doreen. The night before her wedding, with a house full of people – I would have been stressed out – she was a rock star and I’d learn over the rest of the weekend that she was a true Super Mom – could get a hundred things done in a day, never lose her cool and never say I’m tired. Holy cow, she’s amazingly.

The family lent us their car to drive back to the hotel for the night and so we could make our way to the wedding the next day. We had some free time on Saturday morning to lounge, swim and get ready. Good thing too since we were not used to the time change and slept in until ten. Thanks to the car’s GPS we made it to the wedding location about twenty minutes out of town at a beautiful country venue in Grey, Maine. In Boise I would have felt nervous arriving at a function where I knew only a handful or less of the people but most were strangers, but for whatever reason it didn’t faze us there. I had met Doreen’s parents, neighbor, sister and close friend the night before and was greeted with welcome smiles.

The wedding was a casual outdoor event where the gents wore khaki shorts and the ladies wore cute colorful summer dresses. My Jordan was in the most adorable white eyelet lace dress. The ceremony included the children and the melding of the families with a mixing-of-sand-in-bottles-kind of deal that was really neat. The reception was there with a large tented area with tables for eating, dance floor in front of the stage where the ceremony had been, booze in the barn, and acres of green grass for the kids to run and play and explore. They were genius in providing outdoor games, Frisbees, footballs etc for the kids so the adults could stick around longer visiting and dancing and enjoying the festivities without being pestered by little nagging voices “I want to go home. When can we go home?” Nope, there was plenty to do, and the name of the game was to hang out until dark for campfire and S’mores. My boys even broke out of their comfort zone enough to dance a little and make friends. It felt more like a family reunion. I think this is my favorite wedding I’ve ever been to.

Shortly after our pulled pork and homemade mac-n-cheese, Doreen introduced me over the microphone. Everyone stood up and applauded, it was one of those super-sweet, kind of embarrassing moments when you don’t know what to do with yourself so you smile and wave. But it was really cool because then the rest of the day people came up to me thanking me, asking me for a hug, and just being all-round-awesome. I think I felt better hugging those ‘strangers’ more than most of my own family. Everyone showed such warmth and gratitude and kindness. My seven year old even said, “Why are they all so nice?” They really were. They made me feel like a celebrity or something. I felt my heart overflowing with…pride? Joy? Fellowship? Love? All of it. By the end of the night we had a new family we belonged to and it felt great.

Sunday we went out to lunch with the Flynn-Gummoe family for some much needed Maine seafood where we compared all our similarities and odd coincidences that made it seem like our two families were destined to be intertwined all along. Then we drove to the coast for some sight-seeing. We went to Fort William at Cape Elizabeth. It was beautiful. We walked around visiting while we looked at the old fort walls, took pictures on the rocks, and the kids hiked through the wooded areas. My boys put their toes in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time marking that off their life’s to-do-list. By the time we got back to town Mom was exhausted so we dropped her off at the hotel for some alone time and the boys and I went back to the Flynn-Gummoe house for dinner and more hang-out time. My boys got along so well with their son Jacob – playing video games, Chess and swimming – they stayed entertained the whole time. I got to bond with the teenage girls a little over some twitter talk/boy talk. We said our goodbyes to Jordan and the other kids that night knowing they wouldn’t want to get up at 4am to take us to the airport. It took me forever to fall asleep that night. I wasn’t ready to leave yet. But 4am came really fast (especially when that is 2am our time) and Doreen was there to take us to the airport at 5. Thankfully we had about a forty-minute drive to the airport in Portland to visit some more (or sleep in the kids’ case) before we had to say our final goodbyes. But I know it won’t be final, won’t be a one-time meet. These are great, generous, fun, loving people who I bonded to so quickly that I missed them already after only a couple days back. We are already talking about them possibly traveling out to see us in Idaho next summer, or some kind of annual or biannual reunion. There have been almost daily interactions via text, Facebook or Twitter since we left. I truly grew attached. Life’s reward for this donation experience is new lifelong friends and it can’t get much better than that.

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{Do you want to help save a life – visit http://bethematch.org/ to learn how}

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