Bone marrow donation connects us forever

For these extraordinary people, a simple procedure brought hope and healing.

'My donor is a true hero’

Bernadette Murray-Fertel, 52, Amenia, N.Y.

'When I met my husband, Randy, on an online dating site in 2004, I thought he was my perfect match. I had no idea that I was sick with acute myeloid leukemia—and that I would need a different kind of match to save my life.

A few months after Randy and I started dating, I began experiencing severe chest pain. My doctor ran blood tests, and on May 4, 2005, a specialist confirmed that I had a practically untreatable form of leukemia. A bone-marrow and stem-cell transplant was my only chance of survival. I was in shock. Randy responded by proposing to me two hours after I received my diagnosis. I thought he was just trying to make me feel better—we had known each other only a few months! But he was serious; he wanted me to know I wouldn’t face the crisis alone.

As one of nine children, my chance of finding a bone-marrow match among my siblings was 90 percent. Everyone rushed to be tested to see who would donate, but no one in the family qualified. We were devastated. My only hope, I learned, was to find an anonymous donor. The National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match registry turned up a candidate whose blood sample matched mine for all 10 criteria. While I waited to hear if he was willing and able to give me marrow and stem cells, I started chemotherapy to try to get healthy enough to receive a transplant.

That summer I did two rounds of chemo (the first one didn’t work). I lost all my hair and was constantly ill. Randy brought me fancy lotions and rubbed my feet when I could barely lift my head. Then I got the news that my donor was on board. I had my transplant Sept. 15, 2005, and within two weeks, the new stem cells were harvesting and growing in my body.

But my recovery took much longer. I spent three months in the hospital. Then, right after I returned home, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I couldn’t believe it; I was still bald and purple and weighed only 88 pounds. Thank God it was stage 1, because I wouldn’t have survived another round of chemo. Doctors were able to remove the tumor with a mastectomy and do a reconstruction.

After the surgery, my blood work showed no sign of cancer. It took several months before I felt healthy and happy, but after everything Randy and I had been through together, I was ready to celebrate our union. We married on March 10, 2007.

Once I felt better, I couldn’t wait to thank my donor. The registry allows recipients and donors to exchange letters anonymously but requires them to wait a year after the transplant to exchange contact information (allowing them time to decide whether they want to remain anonymous). The day I finally received his name—Keith Sheridan—I was shaking like a leaf. I called him immediately; he said he’d been hoping I’d call.

I was honored to finally meet Keith when he came home last September from serving in Afghanistan with the Army. He lives with his wife and three of his children outside Detroit, and he joined the registry more than 10 years ago during a marrow drive sponsored by the Defense Department. I think every day about how he saved my life. How do you ever thank someone for that? It amazes me that this man has served his country and continues to serve others by being on the registry. He says he was just doing the right thing, but he and all the donors are such heroes to me.

Keith’s gift inspired me to volunteer to recruit other people to join the donor registry and save lives. It feels like one way to honor him and help others who are facing the same odds that I did.'

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