Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Giving thanks to my brother

My younger brother

November is a month of many notes in minor key. --Transitions from light to dark, skies turning a moodier  mauve and grey; trees preparing to sleep, horizons embracing night by five 0’clock, and in the process, introspection tugs me back into myself to a time of rebirth and deep, unexpected gifts. 

This time in November--23rd to be exact--marks 32 years since my bone marrow transplant. I was in my twenties. I had a fifteen percent chance of surviving without one and a 50 percent chance if I chose to have one. Was it really a choice? The procedure back then was dangerous (often fatal) and highly experimental.

Thirty-two years ago, my brother, whose bone marrow matched mine, went under anesthesia for several hours while doctors harvested bone marrow from his hip. He was only seventeen. In fact, he was under age and we had to go to court and get the state's permission to allow this. His bone marrow—a liquid substance—was filtered into plastic, transfusion bags, then hooked up to a plastic tube called a shunt, which was surgically attached to my thigh. Here’s a picture of that shunt, which was eventually surgically removed.

In my intensive care, isolation room in a Boston hospital, I envisioned my brother’s bone marrow as homing pigeons returning to roost.  I also imagined his marrow as carrying seeds scattering throughout my body, taking hold in the earth that was me. Bone marrow is the largest organ in the body. It’s everywhere.

When my brother woke up, his hips sore like Charley horse, he shuffled into my intensive care room and stood outside the plastic curtain that divided us, cheering me on. I was freaking out.  Powerful sedatives during high doses of chemotherapy were wearing off. (The chemotherapy killed my old bone marrow to prepare for the new, which meant I had no immune system.)  My body was vibrating, my mind on warp speed with anxiety. Trapped in a cage, in a six by eight hospital room that I was forbidden to leave, I feared I might go insane.

My brother returned to his boarding school a few days later. I stayed in the sterile, isolation room for another two months under the care of this man.

And my primary nurse who spent several hours with me every day.

And the behind-the-scenes care of this man.

Karmu, the amazing faith healer

And so many others (a team of about one hundred).

Eventually, I wrote about this experience in a story called Recovery, my first published story. It won a prize from Redbook magazine in a national fiction contest.  You can read Recovery here if you’d like. I also talked about my transplant in Susan Henderson’s wonderful interview on LitPark.
This is the laminar air flow room (or bubble) originally created for astronauts. I'm getting ready to go home.  See those gloves? I had to wear them everywhere. The mask, too.

So, once again, thank you, dear brother, and thanks to my team of more than a hundred people—nurses, doctors, researchers, family, faith healer--for your dedication and care, for extending my time on this planet.

In the car with my mom, heading home.

My dad took this pic days after I was home from the hospital.


  1. Send here by Laura Zigman. This is a beautiful post. Lovely writing.

  2. Glad to meet you, Jess. Thank you for stopping in and commenting. Hope we connect on FB as well.