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When Karma Calls You On The Phone: Hello, We Need Your Bone Marrow, Please

By: Kala Maxym, Special to Everyday Health

I’ve had my life saved twice by strangers: once when I was 10 and was swept underwater at an amusement park and the other when I slipped climbing a volcano in Chile eleven years later. I know, pretty ridiculous, but there you go. I wonder sometimes if they remember me or have any idea how often I think of them. I do still swim, but I don’t climb volcanoes anymore.

I have had the privilege of doing a lot of travel in my life, but I never would have thought that my 13 years in Germany as a child would be the thing that led me eventually to donate bone marrow. How did this happen? Well, I’d gone to donate blood one day, as I often did, while in college at Barnard College in New York City. That day, I’d learned that the FDA had changed the rules for blood donation eligibility and that my years living in Germany and the UK made me ineligible forever more to donate blood. The administrators at the blood drive asked me if perhaps I’d be interested in joining the bone marrow registry because the selection process was different and would not be affected by my travel history. I said yes, of course! At the time I knew nothing about bone marrow or what its life-saving capabilities were, and I suppose I just figured it would yield the proverbial “needle in a haystack” situation: of course I’d never be picked!

Unlike most registered donors, I didn’t have to wait many years for the call. It came about two years later while I was a graduate student in Boston. I will never forget where I was when the call came in: on my way to class. The details of the call are a blur, but I remember hearing the voice on the other end of the line saying that I’d been identified as a potential donor match, and I needed to get myself to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute as soon as I could for further testing.

The hospital was only a 10-minute walk from my apartment, and I believe I had my first appointment within just a few days. Besides being in awe of the process, there was another bonus: my doctor was incredibly cute! Dr. Jay Bradner, you know I’m taking about you! I went through extensive blood work and other physical testing to ensure I was in the best health possible, learned all sorts of interesting things about my genetic make-up, and acquired a new favorite word: phlebotomy.

The actual process of donation was only one-week long from beginning to end. I had to inject myself with a hormone to increase the number of stem cells my body produced. I remember being uneasy at first, as I had never given myself an injection before, but I got used to it and did this for the four prescribed days. There were a few side effects, which I had been warned about, but overall I did not experience any pain, and the discomfort I did feel was far from unbearable. I did suffer from insomnia that week, and my bones creaked. No, no, I mean it. They actually creaked. I sounded like an old door when I walked around and had to stand at the back of the classroom swaying back and forth because I could not sit still for very long. By the last day of injections, I was definitely ready to stop feeling like I was a hundred years old. I checked into Dana Farber early in the morning: Monday, November 17th, 2003.

I remember the actual process of donation with wonder, awe and, perhaps strangely, with extreme fondness and love. I went through what is called Peripheral blood stem cell transplantation (PBSCT), also called peripheral stem cell support, rather than the more traditional donation, which involves the surgical removal of bone marrow from the hip area. I sat in a bed for about fourteen hours—seven hours each day for two days—and watched as an enormous machine whirring to the right of my head sucked blood out of my right arm, filtered my stem cells into a bag hanging above my head, and then pumped my blood back into my left arm. Bizarrely, this part of the experience was not very painful at all. A little uncomfortable if I had to scratch my nose, perhaps, and the points of entry for the needles pinched a little, but overall I was not hugely uncomfortable. I watched movies (“Here’s to lookin’ at you, kid”), and I also remember that the food was remarkably decent. I don’t imagine this is what the nurses thought I’d remember 10 years later! After the first day of donation, I left the hospital thinking I could easily make it the 10 minutes to my apartment. I didn’t even make it past the hospital door. Practically fainting from fatigue, I hailed a cab. That evening, I remember feeling more exhausted—yet also more at peace—than I had ever felt before in my life.

I recovered very quickly and had no side effects whatsoever. Well, okay, so the backs of my hands were green for several weeks from all the needles that had been stuck in them, but it felt like a cool war wound, and I felt absolutely fine. I wanted to know how my recipient was doing, of course, but for privacy reason we were not permitted to contact one another directly for a year. We were allowed to send cards through the Be The Match registry, and I did receive one card from her around Christmas time in which she thanked and blessed me.

A year later, on November 17th, 2004, I received a message on my cell phone: “Hello Kala. My name is Peggy, and you saved my life.”
The one thing that has often baffled me, disturbed me even, is how many times I have been called a hero for what I did. We throw that word around a lot these days and to some, maybe I am a hero – or if we’re being appropriately gender-specific, a heroine. I, however, simply do not see myself this way. I think of myself as an ordinary person who was given the honor and privilege of supporting another human being in a time of intense pain and suffering. Through the miracles of medicine and circumstance, as well as a healthy dose of luck, I was able to save someone’s life. I absolutely never did and never will be able to think of that as an act of heroism, simply one of humanity.

Today I serve on the Board of Trustees of the Icla da Silva Foundation, a bone marrow recruitment center in New York City, and I encourage as many people to join the registry as I can. I will say this, though: please only register if you will promise that, if you are called, you will donate. It is too heartbreaking to tell a patient in need that a donor has been identified but has declined to donate.

Peggy — now 60 and looking fabulous — and I celebrated our 10th anniversary last November! I know that she has endured some struggles over the years since her transplant, but every time we speak she makes sure I know how much each additional year at her family’s side has meant to her, and her strength and determination to keep living life to the fullest are truly remarkable.

Lately, we’ve been writing back and forth to one another about this story and my experiences, and Peggy — whose real name is Marguerite — was adamant that the message she wanted to give to any patients waiting for a transplant out there was one of optimism and hope. Her last line to me was this: “Strangers saved your life twice, and many years later, a stranger came along and saved mine. That is what our story – what life – is all about.”

Kala Maxym was  born in Germany and raised in Europe and the U.S. Her diverse professional background includes working as a Senior Program Analyst with the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice’s, singing opera roles—and the occasional impromptu performances for a President—around the world, and serving as the Translation Services Manager for Smartling, Inc.  She founded her own company, Five Senses Tastings in 2012.  Kala holds a BA in Political Science magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College as well as a Master’s degree in Opera Performance from The Boston Conservatory.  She speaks German, French, and Spanish, is a certified Spanish-English translator, and maintains an active classical singing career in the New York City area, where she lives with her two orange kitties, Caspar and Ollie.

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