I stared at the certified letter in my hands, a mix of nervousness and excitement flowing through me. After years of waiting, after forgetting I was even on the donor list for bone marrow transplants, here was a letter telling me I had the opportunity to save a life. I was not going to throw that opportunity away.
My name is Natali Stanley and I am a bone marrow donor. I have done it twice, within three months, during one of the most tumultuous times in my life. And I'd do it again in a heart beat.
I had originally learned of the donor list when I was in high school. My three year old nephew Brevin had been sick for a year and doctors had a hard time diagnosing it. When they told us he had Aplastic anemia and would need a transplant, I was ready to do whatever it took to save his life. Unfortunately I learned I wasn't a match for him. That crushed me. Family is everything to me and here was my little buddy, struggling to survive when he should just be learning how to live.
In a stroke of luck Brevin's newborn brother, Blaize, proved to be a match for donation. Newborns need to wait until they're at least a year old to donate but Brevin got very ill and we had to push up the transplant; Blaize was only nine months old. Both kids made it through the procedure and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
My next few years of decisions - college, career, etc - all revolved around keeping myself close to my nephew so I could help him in any way I could. It haunted me that I couldn't donate in his darkest hour, but that didn't mean the work was over. I'm happy to report that both Brevin and Blaize are great kids, healthy and thriving.
But now here I was, holding a request for donation because I was a match. I had the feeling that I was being called upon. Our family was lucky that we had someone close to donate when Brevin got sick; the person on the other end of this donation did not have that good fortune. As a corrections officer, I've seen how a helping hand can change someone's life. And now I had the chance to not just change but SAVE one. It wasn't even a question. I was in.
At first my wife was afraid. We're like two sides of the same coin; I've made her softer over the years and she's been my backbone. She needed to know I'd be safe because the stakes were very high - we were in the midst of adopting a son and daughter of our own who were just beginning to adjust to their new lives with us. All she could see, in the moment, were the complications that might come along just as we were creating the family we'd always wanted.
Our son overheard the conversations and came to us one night, tears in his eyes, begging me not to donate. He had just grown accustomed to having stability in his life, loving parents that he cared about, and he didn't want to lose me.
I hugged him and told him that if the roles were reversed I would pray that someone would do this same thing for him. Out there was a family that needed a piece of me, and while there might be complications, the rewards were more than worth it.
I wouldn't have been able to get through those weeks without their love and support. And what a hell of a few weeks it was. I donated on November 07 and a week later we were in child custody court for the ruling on permanent custody of the kids, a critical step in the adoption process.
It doesn't sound like much on paper but let me tell you - that donation took a toll on me. Right before I was supposed to go in, I got sick. This flu season has been devastating here in Illinois and getting ill just made the procedure harder on my body. But I thought of my nephews all those years ago and how they went through the same thing and came out the other side. My mother would remind me of this as she gave me the prep shots. It was a huge inspiration and a reminder of the strength our whole family has.
I was still recovering when we had the custody hearing that changed our lives for the best. Knowing that I was able to help a family survive, just as we were creating our own...my body might have been down but my spirits were up.
That's when the second donation request came through. For the same person. The odds of this happening were a million to one. It had only been seven weeks but now, after 14 years of not being a match, here we were making up for that lost time. Any thoughts I had about helping this person only crystallized when we got the news.
I agreed to donate again without hesitation. I felt like I had been through hell already but that only steeled my resolve. Pain is temporary, a fleeting moment across our life. I was strong and I knew I could survive that to save someone else.
Unfortunately, that's when my illness came back, now worse because my white blood cell count was so high. I went from bronchitis to hand foot and mouth disease...all told I was sick for almost an entire month. The FDA and my transplant team wouldn't allow anyone to do a surgical donation twice in this short a period, and certainly not someone in my current situation. So we switched to the spin cell method for the second donation. And I'd have to do it while fully conscious.
The team in Chicago was just as great the second time as they were the first. As someone who prefers small town life I didn't expect the kindness and hospitality they showed to me and my family during the process. They allowed my kids to come and stay with us which doesn't usually happen. Our son and daughter were the perfect happy distraction to get me through everything else I went through, all right before Christmas.
But here's the thing - it's now February, I've recovered from everything and I'm healthy. It feels good to feel good again. What I went through over three months was stressful and drained us as it was happening.
But it was temporary.
People who need donations, unless they receive one, don't get a chance to just recover. They don't get to feel better a few months later. And I knew that feeling when the news comes in that they can save the life of someone you love. So knowing all of that, there was no amount of temporary discomfort I could ever experience that would stop me from letting a family thrive the way mine was allowed to.
If you are even thinking of registering, I urge you to do so. It takes a second to make a cheek swab and to find out if you're a match. Even if you aren't, you will stay on the registry until you are in your 60s. A simple action now can save someone's life in the future, a person who doesn't yet know they need saving.
Family is everything to me. Donating gives people their family back. And it gives them the most precious resource in these situations: time.
My wife has told me I'm the most selfless person she knows. I don't know if that's true. I just know that life is a gift and if I can help someone keep that gift, it doesn't matter if I get a hundred certified letters in the mail...the answer will always be yes.