Born only 10 months apart, Jimbo and I grew up the closest in age and geographic proximity among the 11 kids that make up the boisterous DeJean clan. We attended each other’s birthday parties, trick-or-treated together and competed against each other annually for the coveted golden egg. For many years, I was the closest thing to a bossy sister he had and he was my big brother figure.
Though our grown-up lives are quite different, through high school and college and the beginning of our lives as adults we’ve remained good friends. I maintain a relatively nomadic lifestyle and unconventional career. He married young, got a stable job and had two beautiful babies.
As families and responsibilities grow, our family gatherings have become less frequent. Somehow, I know I can always count on him to call me with his latest business idea, however ridiculous or ingenious, or text me pictures of Joe Biden’s limo outside his window at MD Anderson. He has always been and will always be one of my closest friends.
The day I got the call he had leukemia, I couldn’t have been more shocked. Having seen him only days before, I couldn’t and still can’t understand how a perfectly healthy 28-year-old who was strong enough to knock defenders to the ground as an offensive lineman in college could succumb to such an elusive microscopic killer. Isn’t leukemia for kids and old people anyway?
So many questions. Unable to concentrate on my morning work, I spent hours at my usual coffee shop googling and reading everything about the disease. Without getting into specifics, his Web MD/Wikipedia prognosis was not good.
Yet, the news we got via Caring Bridge from Houston proved increasingly promising. After the first few rounds of chemo, the disease began to disappear. Though his specific mutation is more curable than others, it still seemed like a miracle. The doctors even went so far as to use the word “remission” to describe the stage of the disease he was facing.
As the months went on, I’ll admit I got a little complacent, reading the updates less often. I continued to check in from time to time, teasing him mercilessly about the firetrucks his mom took the liberty of sewing on his hospital gowns but I never worried. It never even crossed my mind that this battle might take some turns or go on further than the original 6 month treatment plan laid out by his doctors.
The unbelievable strength that Jimbo’s wife Ashley shows in maintaining a positive, hopeful attitude when she writes our weekly updates, made it easy to think that both the battle and the war had been fought, and almost over. But over time, the news became less and less ideal. On the molecular level, the doctors began to see the leukemia numbers rise.
Though the idea was tabled early on, the doctors decided that Jimbo’s best chance for preventing relapse was a bone marrow transplant. I went back to my MacBook for research.
The first order of business in any bone marrow transplant is to test the patient’s siblings. Jimbo’s only brother Chris has the highest chance of being a match and a 25% chance of being a full match. Knowing that the chances weren’t great I’d be a match if Chris wasn’t, I secretly hoped I would be. There’s no more frustrating situation for a control freak than watching someone I love fight for his life, and knowing I can do nothing.
Yet, I swore I had no interest in helping a stranger that I’d likely never meet. Though I could have joined the registry for free, I found a private lab that would test me for a fee.
Luckily, I never had to test to see if I’m a match. After several anxious weeks, we learned that Chris is a half match. While not ideal, it’s great news. With only one full-match possibility on the national registry, it’s not worth the wait. Thanks to the miracle of medical advances, a half-match transplant can be equally successful to a full match.
Knowing that my cousin is in good hands and will be taken care of is comforting but it’s hard not to still feel helpless to make any real difference. When I talked to him on the day that his transplant course of action was finalized, my heart broke at the sadness and fear in his voice that he couldn’t hide, not for himself but for the two little people who depend on him most.
One of the few things I can do is take 10 minutes to register myself as a potential donor and encourage others to do the same. It’s the only thing my cousin has ever asked me to do. Though he didn’t sign up for it, he’s now a member of a club with 10,000 new members every year, those who need a bone marrow transplant to save their lives. Only half will find a suitable match.
The modern version of the bone marrow transplant isn’t all that inconvenient. It’s a lot like donating blood, no surgery or anesthesia. To decide that I’d only be willing to save one of my own is beyond selfish. How can I expect any stranger to save him or even me one day if I’m not willing to reciprocate the favor?
Though Jimbo’s battle is far from over. I’m confident that with the best doctors in the world, the bone marrow transplant he’ll get in just a few short weeks will save his life. And on the off chance that the introduction of his brother’s DNA has any residual effect on his personality, I’ll hope he gets some of the drive that made him an All-American athlete instead of his questionable judgement for adventure and subsequent accidents.
We pray every day for no complications and a successful outcome. Just like I secretly hoped I’d be a match for my loved one, I’ll pray that one day I will be called to take a few days out of my busy schedule to save the life of a stranger’s cousin, child or friend.
Facts about Bone Marrow Transplant: (via: bethematch.org)
Bone Marrow (Stem Cell) Transplants work.
Bone marrow transplantation is among the greatest success stories in cancer treatment. It has boosted survival rates from nearly zero to more than 85 percent for some blood cancers.
Patients are most likely to match someone who shares their ancestry.
Today, there simply aren’t enough registry members of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Adding more diverse members increases the likelihood that all patients will find a life-saving match.
Members with these backgrounds are especially needed:
- Black or African American
- American Indian or Alaska Native
- Asian, including South Asian
- Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
- Hispanic or Latino
- Multiple Race
Donors never pay to donate marrow.
The National Marrow Donor Program reimburses travel costs and may reimburse other costs on a case-by-case basis. All medical costs for the donation procedure are covered by us or by the patient’s medical insurance.
It only takes 10 minutes to join the registry.
Joining the National Bone Marrow Registry is free for most people. It takes about 10 minutes and a simple cheek swab to sign up. Visit bethematch.org to sign up.