Recently I was asked to be a recurring freelance writer for a national magazine publication called TransplantNation. There was no way I was saying no to that. None. I am an ardent believer in using our past experiences, particularly the painful ones, to help others get through similar experiences. If we can help lighten the load someone else is carrying on their current journey, to me, that is the measure of a life well-lived.
As the name suggests, TransplantNation covers stories of those in our nation who have either been a recipient of, or a donor for a life saving transplant. Interviews with donors, recipients, and their families are conducted. Friendships made. Life experiences shared. Articles written which hopefully convey everything from the stages of grief to mundane everyday tasks, to loss, love, and new normals. It is an amazing publication, one which I am honored to be a part.
“Since we’re on a tight deadline for this one, we figured if you wrote about your own transplant, it would save you both research time and having to track down the interviewee,” they said.
We all smiled. I love meeting new people on my journey.
“Can you come back in here?” the doctor asked me over the phone. I may have only just turned twenty-five, but I had lived enough life to know that question wasn’t asked if everything was alright. My daughter, Liv, was six miles away at the Montessori School where she played and ate and napped during the days, as twenty-two-month-old toddlers like to do. I had just dropped her off and begun my work day as usual. Only after hanging up the phone that morning, I quickly realized nothing was ever going to be usual again.
I was in the middle of a divorce. My soon to be ex-husband had moved us to a new city four months prior; he was now back in our home state by himself. I had a new job, no local friends, and postpartum. And also, as it turned out, leukemia.
There was no history of cancer in my family to that point, but as I would later discover after intensive research, leukemia is not hereditary. It is typically caused by environmental factors. In my case, having grown up as a four-season athlete who was only ever inside to eat and sleep, the water source in my small hometown village was likely the catalyst for the chromosome mutation. A bone marrow biopsy confirmed the diagnosis: Chronic myeloid leukemia.
The singular option for survival was a Bone Marrow Transplant. My only sibling, the one who is deathly afraid of needles, was immediately tested. To this day, the image of my sister and I holding hands as we walked through the waiting room after her name was called is forever etched in our parent’s minds. I watched the tiny vials fill with my sister’s blood while choking back the tears filling my eyes. How could this even be happening? I thought. Nothing seemed real. Not her blood, not her pale and sweaty face, and certainly not the proposition of Liv growing up without me . . . without a mom.
Sarah, my sister, was not a match. Miraculously, four weeks after hearing that news, my oncologist had a list of three potential donors found through Be The Match (www.bethematch.org). Plans went into high gear. Rigorous pre-transplant testing occurred. Tomes of information read. Bags packed. Central port put in place. Goodbyes said. It was then and only then that I was able to sit down and write out eighteen years of parenting instructions to my daughter.
Never one for a loss of words, my fingers didn’t move. My dearest Liv . . . if you are reading this, then that means that I . . .
Tears. Anger. Balled up paper being thrown against our tiny apartment wall. When you are in the throes of grief, oftentimes you don’t recognize anything other than anguish. And there’s nothing really to be done other than go through each grievous phase—one step at a time.
After acceptance, I became resolute in my mission. I would do everything that was within my control to make it out of transplant. From the time I heard the words, “You have leukemia” to the time I walked through the revolving door at the entrance of University Hospitals of Cleveland’s Ireland Cancer Center, four months passed. It would be another thirty-five days until I breathed fresh air again.
As a lifelong competitive extrovert, I rolled my chemo pole to each of the neighboring rooms on the transplant unit every day during my thirty-five day stint, looking for either a race or newfound friendship. “Hi, I’m Beth!” I said. “Fancy meeting you here!” From looks of disgust and dismay to those of welcome relief, I never wavered in my intentional connection with others going through the same fear and uncertainty. Many days I was too tired to get out of bed, but knowing that Kirk and Jeff and Bob were on the other side of my confining four walls, brought me additional fortitude. “We got this, you guys!” I said with a bald nod of encouragement.
I was the only one who walked out of the hospital’s revolving front door.
To say anyone is ever fully prepared for a life-altering diagnosis and subsequent transplant is a gross understatement. However, to say that everyone who has gone through it firsthand—donor, recipient, family members, friends—is forever changed, is spot on.
Today, twenty-two years later, I recognize the incredible journey I’ve had the blessing to endure. I recognize that I am not alone, a recognition which is, at its core—one that unifies us all as part of our human existence. I remain in contact with my (now retired) oncologist, my case manager, and my transplant nurse, Robin, who snuck R-rated comedy movies into my room and lifted my spirits. I also remain in contact with my donor, whose name is also Beth—and Jeff’s wife, Karen, who stuck by his side until the very end.
While we never know the roads we will travel, the ones traversed with the most unexpected sojourners can lead us to the most beautiful destinations.