This post originally ran on nbmt Link’s website at https://www.nbmtlink.org/my-blood-brother/
I am writing this while helping my 1.5 year-old son eat his dinner. (“Eat” is a loose term, since over 50% of his vegetables and baby-sized chicken nuggets land on the floor rather than in his mouth. So is “helping,” since I spend most of the time fighting laughter through an otherwise poor attempt at a stern expression.) He has blonde hair and big brown eyes and a hugely contagious laugh. I feel lucky every time I look at him. Even during the happiest times with him, though, I think of Cameron.
Cameron’s parents were high school sweethearts, worked at the same company, got married, bought a house, then set about starting their family. They were overjoyed when he was born. Their first child. A son with big brown eyes and blonde hair. They called him “Super Cam.”
He was only two years old when his family received the news that Cam had acute leukemia. Eventually, Cam’s doctors sat his parents down and told them news they were hoping not to hear: their son would not survive without a bone marrow transplant. He was four years old.
I had never heard of the bone marrow registry before. It’s not exactly something that comes up in everyday conversation. I was only 21 and standing outside my college cafeteria. There was a nice classmate at the table and he explained what it was and how I could help someone one day. And there were cookies. I signed up and gladly accepted the Oreos that came with the deal. Then I graduated and life continued.
A little over a year later, I got phone call. The voice from the other end told me that she had important news. She was calling from a bone marrow registry named Gift of Life. Good name, I thought. She said I was a perfect match for a 4 year-old boy with leukemia.
In the weeks that followed I traveled to the hospital where the transplant was to take place. They explained how I would have to undergo anesthesia and put me through a bunch of tests to make sure that was okay. It’s still surprising to me now how many people thought this was all very strange. I stopped telling people what I was going to the hospital for, half to make sure I didn’t jinx it and half to avoid the inevitable but unspoken exchange when they thought I was crazy for doing it and I thought they were crazy for thinking that.
A year after the transplant, I got another phone call. The voice from the other end told me that she had important news. The recipient was alive. Did I want to exchange information?
A year after his transplant, Cameron was back home. His blonde hair grew back in, slowly. His brown eyes and big laugh never left. He would be starting school soon and recently went to a baseball game of his favorite team. His parents received a similar call to me. They wanted to meet, too.
We emailed at first. It was like online dating. They told me how in preparing for the transplant, his parents told Cam that he was healthy because somewhere out there, he had a blood brother. Not having an actual brother yet, Cam thought this was great. The name stuck. I was now, in all emails sign offs, “Blood Brother.” I shared pictures of me and some friends “just to let you know I’m a normal person.” They shared pictures and stories of Cam and their family through the years. How he spent so much of his young life in a hospital. How they tried as hard as they could to make it comfortable for him, not knowing if he’d ever return home.
A few weeks later we met and went to the hospital where he was treated. His parents walked just behind us, in the same hallway where they wondered if their son would live to see kindergarten, in the same building where they spent so many nights being challenged as parents in one of the hardest ways imaginable. Even then, I remember the strength that must have taken. Cam, his parents, and I have been close ever since that moment. Life continued, but so did our friendship. We stayed in touch. I visited their house and we watched cartoons. They visited me and we went to the zoo. He became a big brother. He was at my wedding. I can depend on a totally unnecessary but always appreciated and thoughtful thank you text from him on every birthday, holiday, and transplant anniversary (and Patriots Super Bowl win – he is an avid fan). We are family.
I’m picking up smushed broccoli and chicken off the floor. A flying nugget hits me in the head and laughter erupts from the high chair. As a parent to a little boy who is around Cam’s age at diagnosis, looking back on my bone marrow donation brings even more meaning now.
That experience has been completely life-altering. I volunteer and worked with the bone marrow registry for years. I work with Stupid Cancer, an organization that serves as an advocate for the often overlooked adolescent and young adult cancer patient community. Through this, I have met patients who are not as fortunate as Cameron, both in outcome and the loving support system that never left his corner.
I think constantly about how that taught me what it takes to be a parent. I cannot separate my reality of raising a child who depends on his parents for everything from being so close to one whose life depended on a total stranger. Every contagious laugh, every well up of tears in his eyes, every stroke of my son’s hair when he falls asleep makes me feel more connected to it — and more and more lucky to know two healthy, growing little men who look alike, who laugh alike, and who each make me prouder with each passing day.