This is a short speech I gave recently at the City of Hope Bone Marrow Transplant Survivors Reunion, a day I’ll never forget.
The baseball hat I’m sporting today has the number 42 instead of a team logo. You may wonder what that means, so I’ll explain. Dr. Stephen Forman and I are big Dodger fans and we talk baseball every time I see him at my regularly scheduled follow up visits to the City of Hope.
At my last visit in April, he informed me that the upcoming Bone Marrow Transplant Survivors Reunion is the 42nd anniversary of this wonderful event. I noted the coincidence, as it was just Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball, a day when every player on every team wears number 42, Jackie’s famous uniform number. It’s a number that’s been officially retired, so no player in major league baseball will ever wear it again. Its Jackie’s number for time and eternity.
Forty-two is significant to me in another way. It’s the year I was born. May 14, 1942 to be exact, but I’m here to celebrate another birthday today: July 18, 2012. It’s the day I was given a new life by the generosity of a man I didn’t even know, a man halfway around the world in a country called Israel. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In March of 2012 I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a condition I don’t have to explain to any of you. I was told that even if extensive chemo were to put my disease in remission, I would still need a bone marrow transplant to survive. As I inquired what this process entailed, I was told that I needed to find a donor that possessed the same DNA as me. I was further told that a DNA match would likely come from someone of the same ethnicity. “Great, I thought… I’m a white guy, so I’m in the largest gene pool.”
“Not so fast, white boy! You’re not white in genetic terms, you’re an Ashkenazy Jew, and that’s a separate and rather small category. If a donor is to be found for you, it will likely come from this group.”
Upon completion of a solid month of chemo, I was sent home from the hospital to await word on whether or not a donor had been located. I have to say, the next couple of weeks were the most anxious ones of my life. I spent a great deal of that time trying to come to terms with the possibility that no donor would be found and that this might be the end of the road.
Well, you’ve already figured out the rest of the story. My donor, Alex Kikis, was identified, and for whatever reasons, he agreed to provide life-saving bone marrow to me. Arrangements were made, and a courier was sent to Israel to collect the bone marrow harvested from Alex. The courier then got on a plane, flew back to the City of Hope and the transplant proceeded the next day. How amazing is that?
Without going into the recovery process, I was one of the fortunate ones. The transplant took and within a few weeks I was home working on reclaiming my life. One big thing was missing though? Who was this anonymous man and when can I meet him.
I called Be the Match, the organization that hosts the bone marrow registry, and was told that BMT recipients must wait at least one year to seek contact with their donor. That’s if the donor is a US citizen. To contact foreign donors, the waiting period is two years. “Two years? That seems like an eternity,” I thought. But that’s how it works.
Well, I got on with my life, but always kept an eye on the calendar, marking off the months in anticipation of the time when I could reach out to my donor. When that time finally arrived, I eagerly contacted Be the Match and asked how to proceed. “You have to fill out a form, which we will process for you, and in a few weeks we’ll let you know if your donor would agree to you contacting him.
Those few weeks passed, and I called Be the Match again, to be told that my donor had not responded but that I could try one more time. If he didn’t respond this time though, I should move on with my life and just accept that I was given a gift, and let it go at that. When no one responded to my second attempt, I was very disappointed, but accepted my donor’s decision and tried to move on.
But guess what? Shortly after that, Be the Match called and said, “Your donor has agreed to connect with you!” How great I thought, this is amazing news. But there was a problem. My donor, Alex, turned out to be an immigrant to Israel, whose primary language is Russian and secondary language is Hebrew. He speaks only a little English, so we have become Facebook friends, though I never got to engage him in a real conversation.
When City of Hope informed me that I had been selected to meet Alex and that they were bringing he and his wife Larisa to our BMT Survivors Reunion, I was elated. I’ve been dreaming about this day since I found out I had a donor, almost six years ago.
I’d like to circle back to my opening remarks when I mentioned the significance of the number 42, and its owner, Jackie Robinson. Jackie summed it up better than I ever could when he once famously said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
Alex Kikis, my family and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the impact you’ve had on mine!