11 February 2013

Some People

About two weeks ago, the spot in my left forearm where one would insert a needle for drawing blood began inexplicably to ache.  Neurosis crept through an opening in the door.  Bachman Family Patriarchs with various cardiac issues loomed heavily on my mind.  As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I became convinced that the second half of my proposed century on earth would begin with a real bang.  I peered from behind my own eyes onto my present and into my future, counting minutes, hours and days until I could figure out the pulsating source of the pain.  Had I thrown a snowball I forgot about?  Tripped and fell and gripped a birch tree, wrenching my arm on that walk in Berkshires a few weeks back?  Worked myself into a poetic lather, sleeping fitfully for nights on end, twisted into existential knots after tackling Louise Gluck in one fell swoop?   Am I wrapping my tefilin too tight?  (I don't love God that much, these days--do I?  He's still distant in my year of mourning.)

But then, as often happens at the oddly serendipitous intersection between science and mysterious chance, I remembered something.

You may have read here last Fall that more than a decade after doing a cheek-swab for a stem cell sample at a student-run Donor Drive at NYU Law School, I came up as a match this summer, 12 years later, for a 49 year old man with acute leukemia.   Several tests at Cornell Hospital and a five day regiment of neupogen and we were good to go.  For six hours I was on a centrifuge, nearly 4.5 million stem cells were bagged, frozen, and sent off to the other guy who is 49, the one who was wondering if he'd make it to 50.  A needle in each arm, long, invasive, foreign, made me into a machine for day, churning out product, numbers and statistics for the one-man factory I was.

Last week I heard from the Gift of Life that my recipient has experienced a "successful graft."  This means my stem cells "took" inside his body.  He's alive, ambulatory, and living life.

The pain in my arm, I decided, was the pain of another man, living.  I imagined him poked and prodded, as they say, fed his medicines intravenously, drawing blood and cells endlessly, quantitatively examining his genetic essence, feeding the data into algorithms, attempting to determine his future.

At present--thank God, thank Family, thank Science--he's alive.

According to the rules of engagement, we're not allowed to know one another yet.  The situation is still tenuous.  I respect that.  But I was allowed to write him anonymously.

Here's what I wrote:

Dear Friend:

I am your Gift of Life Donor.  This past October I had the opportunity to give you stem cells.  It was a powerful experience to be connected to you, however anonymously.  I am a 49 year old as well.  If you're up for it, I'd be happy to correspond from time to time, as you see fit.  If not, I understand that, too.  But just so you know, I think of you often and hope you're doing okay.  If my stem cells ever give you a hard time, tell them to shape up.  If they have you rooting for the under-dog in baseball, football or basketball, well, those are the cells you now have and there's not a whole lot either of us can do about that.  

Peace and Good Health.

Your Donor.

I went for humor.  And faith in the underdog.  And inklings--like, when you feel pain, maybe someone is feeling pain, too.  But if you each know that, perhaps there can be a mutual alleviation of suffering, which some people call redemption, some people call science, and others call chance.

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