The second time I swabbed my cheek for a genetic test, FamilyTreeDNA.com found a number of possible relatives for me. But the first time, the Gift of Life bone marrow registry connected me to a ten year old boy with leukemia who needed my stem cells to live. The day I donated was a year ago Saturday.
In the genealogy community we talk a lot about DNA testing because it helps connect the dots where traditional research cannot. We can prove a connection between ourselves and possible relatives (like yesterday’s big news story about Obama’s slave ancestry), or we can leap back in time to the otherwise unknowable countries our ancestors originally came from (like how Henry Louis Gates took Chris Rock and Blair Underwood back to the African countries testing said they’re from). But no matter what miraculous connections DNA testing makes for me (and one day, I will succeed in getting that one guy to compare his results with my father’s to solidify our connection to a line traced back to 16th century Constantinople!), the most miraculous of all will always begin with the morning I received a phone call out of the blue that I was a little boy’s miracle match.
People assume that donating bone marrow requires a painful operation on your hip bone, but that’s mostly not true anymore. 80% of donors are connected to a blood filtration machine for 4-6 hours to collect stem cells instead. That’s it — easy, painless, and no recovery time! Fewer than twenty-four hours after I finished donating, I got a phone call to tell me that my cells were already in the little boy’s body. Twice over the past year I’ve been updated about how well he recovered. Now he’s back to the normal routine of any boy. I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything more significant in my life than helping him.
The two worlds of genetic testing do cross. A fellow donor told me an amazing story about his recipient, a Hispanic man in New Mexico. When this donor and recipient met after the recipient got well, the donor expressed surprise that the recipient was not also Jewish like him, since they clearly shared similar DNA. Months later the recipient told the donor that he had discovered from his grandmother that his family, in fact, were crypto-Jews who had fled the Inquisition, but maintained Jewish customs in secret. The recipient learned something surprising about his family’s history, but more importantly, thanks to his life-saving donor he could look ahead to many of years of learning his family’s amazing journey and absorbing its meaning for himself.
If you haven’t already, please join a bone marrow registry. Maybe you, too, are someone’s miracle match! You’ve used your DNA to take your family backwards in time; now use it to allow someone else’s family to continue into the future.
Update: I learned in November 2012 that the little boy who received my stem cells did not survive. The donation was his best chance at survival. At least he had that chance.