Marathon training has begun!! Naturally after not waking up at the crack of dawn for a training run for a while now, this week has me thinking about why I’m training for another marathon, fundraising at the same time, all with a baby at home! Why am I you ask? Well let me tell you a little story…
Cancer has touched my life in many ways over the years. My first encounter with cancer happened when I was 5 when one of my cousins was diagnosed and we went as a family to the Baseball Hall of Fame just days before he passed away. In 2002, while in high school, I met blood cancer, when my family learned my Grandma was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and unfortunately passed away a year after her diagnosis. Then in 2008 I watched a very close friend, Nikki, battle leukemia. It’s because of her that I have an even closer connection to leukemia. I worked with Nikki’s husband, Marc, and quickly got to know them both. In 2008 Marc and Nikki were blessed with their daughter Michaela, but sadly a short 3 months later Nikki was diagnosed with leukemia. She went through chemo and radiation but ultimately still needed a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, no one in her family was a match and she would need to find an unrelated donor. It was hard for me to watch such a wonderful person go through something so terrible. But that’s when I first learned about Be the Match. In March 2009, I signed up on the registry in honor of Nikki. Fortunately, Nikki was able to find an unrelated donor, began to recover and was soon doing well enough to be sent home. Sadly, she lost her battle with leukemia later in 2009 – she was only 30 and their daughter Michaela was only 9 months old.
I do not remember anyone telling me the odds of being called as a bone marrow donor, but I did know it could be years if I was ever called at all. I was surprised when I got a call from Be the Match 3 months later saying I was a potential match for a 3 year old boy with leukemia; and the person on the other end of the phone askedTHE important question, was I willing to be his bone marrow donor? I didn’t have to think twice, I replied with a resounding yes. There was no doubt in my mind, I had a feeling that I was meant to help this little boy.
Everything moved quickly after that phone call. I had an initial appointment that evening to learn more about the donation process, the type of leukemia he was fighting and to sign some forms. Marc was kind enough to come with me to my appointment and give his support. My heart dropped when I was told that this little boy only had a 50% chance of surviving WITH a bone marrow transplant. For the boy I matched, his doctors requested actual bone marrow, so I was scheduled for surgery. Truth be told, I was scared, this was going to be my first surgery EVER. I just kept reminding myself of why I was doing this and how the little boy must be feeling, and it helped me get through it. I will never forget my dad telling me that my donation was “the best Christmas present I would ever give.”
January 7, 2010 was the day of my surgery, 9 months after I signed up to be a donor, and 3 months after Nikki passed away. My mom flew in to be with me and stick around to make sure I was ok. The entire procedure took an hour and they harvested about a soda can full of bone marrow. I stayed in the hospital for the day, long enough to watch a few movies and enjoy some delicious hospital food and was discharged that evening.
Once I was home, I started thinking about the little boy wondering how he was doing. Rules dictated that I had to wait a WHOLE year before I could find out who he was. I got some updates here and there about how he was doing, but all anonymous. I prayed for him every day, a gut feeling told me he was doing well, recovering, and playing outside. For me, my life continued just as it did before my donation.
When January 7, 2011 came around, I was hoping I would hear something about that little boy and my wish was granted that evening; I received an email from his parents! His name was Owen and because of me he was now 4 and doing well! His family was coming to Minneapolis for a checkup and wanted to meet. I was touched and overjoyed! His parents sent me a link to a blog they were keeping, and I stayed up very late reading all about Owen’s journey. I learned how he had been diagnosed, the trips to different hospitals around the country to find the right place for his treatment, his short fight with graft vs. host disease, and all of his family and friends that were supporting him in his hometown of Omaha.
We met a week later in downtown Minneapolis. Mark and Heather, Owen’s parents, greeted me with big hugs and tears. Owen stopped by with a big grin, just long enough to say hi, since he was busy playing with his sister and brother. Surprisingly, I learned Owen and I had a lot in common. My donation and his transplant were on the same day, in the same hospital, just 1 floor apart. Along with sharing marrow we also share the same birthday.
I have been lucky to get to know Owen and his entire family. They are a kind and welcoming family, always taking the time to have fun. We keep in touch regularly; Owen’s parents were readers in our wedding and their whole family flew out to be with my husband and I on our special day. Owen’s dad is our son’s godfather and we could not be more grateful to have I am happy to say, Owen is 14, an amazing soccer player, loves the Minnesota Vikings, and best of all, Owen has no signs of cancer! What started off as my way of honoring a friend, turned into becoming part of another family and a lifelong friendship.
A friend and co-worker once asked me if I felt like I had finished making an impact in the world. My first response to her was yes! I had the opportunity to help save a life, what else could I possibly do? She looked at me, smiled and told me she didn’t think I was done quite yet. That conversation has stayed with me for years, and has kept me wondering what else can I do to make a difference, big or small? I want to leave this world a better place, make a difference in at least 1 person’s life by providing the same feeling of hope that Owen and his family had to another family fighting blood cancer. Owen and his family are my why for taking on another marathon and working to raise funds and awareness for LLS with TNT. Thinking of Owen and other cancer patients going through treatment will help keep me going when the training miles get long and difficult, because I’m sure chemo is much harder than a long training run.
What about you? What is your “why” that keeps you going when things get hard?
P.S. I’ve officially started fundraising again for Team in Training (TNT) and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society! While I’m planning some fun events leading up to October 2021, please check out my TNT page and consider making a donation if you are able. Thank you!
Paula Rucker · May 6, 2021 at 4:35 pm
I loved reading your “Why”. I knew about Owen, but not all of the other ways with which cancer has touched you. Miss you and love you