My Story by Jennifer Hawkins

In June 2017, I was a bone marrow donor for a young child. This was a life-changing procedure for me and I pray it will be a blessing for the child as well.

In September 2015, my younger sister was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. This was a shocker to us as she was a world-class athlete and the disease seemed to come out of nowhere. She had recently completed a Half Iron Man and numerous triathlons. As the big sister, I struggled mightily. It was not my disease and I understood that, but the big sister in me wanted to do something to help her, something to take this away from her and heal her. This totally rocked our world.

Throughout her treatment and beyond I was amazed. I was amazed at her strength and faith even throughout the toughest of days. I was amazed at the kindness of strangers and friends alike, from helping and praying for her the whole time. Her illness emphasized the fact that cancer was a real disease, but it also brought out a segment of society that although rarely publicized will forever be appreciated. You always hear of good people in the world but we experienced it firsthand. Encountering this kindness demonstrated to me that it may not be our spot to understand or agree with struggles, but it is important that when given the chance to help someone diminish their struggle, it is our job to say yes.

In March 2016, the disease became even more real. The young child of a family friend was diagnosed with leukemia. Not only did cancer now have a face, but it was an ugly one that hit young children and adults alike. The fact that it could hit athletes and babies alike really shook me up.

The next month, a Salute to Life recruitment drive was held at Sheppard Air Force Base, where my husband is an instructor. We agreed to register together as volunteer bone marrow donors. The Tech Sergeant explained how to swab your cheek and fill out the paperwork. He said it was a “substantial commitment” because you need to follow through and actually donate if you are matched to a patient. It was a lot easier than I anticipated. The entire process took maybe ten minutes at the most and was extremely simple. We left and went home and knew if we got the call we would answer, but the chance was slim either of us would receive a call.

On October 1st, my sister relapsed with Hodgkin’s. I wanted to be on the list for my sister. She ended up having an autologous transplant, where she was given an infusion of her own cells for treatment. Knowing that someone might be out there that possibly needed me reinforced my commitment to donation if the phone call came.

Knowing that the likelihood of matching to a patient is very low, I was shocked when I was contacted. To be honest, I expected my husband to get called. I could hardly believe it, I did not recognize the number and thought it was a prank caller or something. But by the time I could return the call after work, they had called, messaged and emailed so many times, I knew it was for real. They even contacted my husband and he told me to call them back as well.

As soon as I was able to return the call I was blessed to be connected with my coordinator. I immediately hit it off with my coordinator, Naomi. She was very nice and explained that I was a preliminary match for a child. I knew that my answer was going to be “yes”. I was never really scared. My friends and parents were more nervous about it.

Initially, I was a preliminary match. I had my blood tested at a local lab, and then waited. Naomi soon called back with the results: “You are the best match.” I committed and our story began.

The path to donation was not entirely straight-forward. The patient needed additional treatment and the donation date was pushed back, then put on hold.

I have no idea who the patient is, other than minor details. But it was almost like we had bonded already, although we don’t even know each other. I felt as though if he could just make it to the transplant, I could give him what he needed to get healthy. Silently cheering for him every time he crossed my mind, I hoped that it would give him strength to persevere. We all prayed for him.

In March of 2017, I got the call I had been waiting for. Naomi said, “They want to proceed with donation. The doctor wants bone marrow – it is the best option.”

In May, I travelled to the Washington, DC area for a physical exam. The town I live in is very small, and I didn’t have much big city experience. I was nervous I would get lost and end up somewhere. Naomi had made all of the arrangements and there was no cause for worry. My driver, Marsha, was the nicest lady ever – super helpful. She took me from nervous to relaxed in two seconds. Everything was ten times better than I anticipated.

I was equally impressed with the medical staff. Usually when I have blood drawn, it takes three or four sticks to find a vein. The tech told me not to worry, he would get it first stick. I thought, “Sure buddy. It is good to have goals.” But he got it the first time. Everyone made me feel really comfortable.

Once the physical exam results were reviewed and I was medically cleared to donate, I returned to the city – this time with my husband. He is from a town of 300 people. He was impressed with how smooth everything ran.

Bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure, done by removing marrow from the hip bones using a special needle and syringe. It is typically conducted under general anesthesia.

My nervousness returned the day of the surgery. It was getting real that day.

However, the medical staff made every effort to reduce my stress. Everyone was super friendly. They made it a point to talk to me and my husband. Made it a point to make him comfortable.

The procedure itself was sort of anticlimactic. I was expecting to be hurting so bad – in excruciating pain. I wasn’t even hurting that bad. I was 1 or 2 on the 10-point pain scale – maybe a 3 or 4 when I first woke up. I had a few issues with nausea on the second day, but I think it was a side effect of the pain relief medication.

On Monday, I had my donation and was back to the hotel about 5 pm. On Tuesday, we laid around in the morning, but in the afternoon we went on a trolley ride in the city.

The hospital staff had given us a bag of extra bandaging material. We took the bag with us, just in case, in a backpack. At the Jefferson Memorial, a lady slipped and fell. The woman had cut her leg and was bleeding. My husband gave her the bandage materials. When we returned to the hotel later, we were worried about not having back-up supplies of our own – so we requested additional materials. More bandages were sent right away. Anything we needed, they were a phone call away.

My biggest side-effect was that I took a few more naps than usual. It was a life-changer. It makes you thankful to be in a spot to help. From the day we joined the registry I knew donation was a possibility. The process is simple. The staff are by your side every step of the way.

Sometimes we don’t understand why things happen, or why others get sick. We may not understand how to fix things, but just being available and committing to be someone’s miracle is a simple way to change the world one solution at a time. Join the registry. Be the fix. I am blessed to be in a spot to help someone else and pray that one day you will have the opportunity to bless others.