Goodness In Their Bones

Nov 7, 2017

Jessica Handy works as a lobbyist for an education advocacy organization called Stand for Children. I’ve aired interviews with her in the past because she’s got a knack for explaining complex numbers. So to her, the most critical part of this story is the numbers. Specifically, some very long odds.

“In July of 2016, I heard a story on NPR, and Amanda Vinicky was reporting about a bone marrow drive where she finally registered. It was something she’d been meaning to do for a long time,” Jessica says. “I sent in for my cheek swab, and I just did it. Actually, I did it sitting in my car.”

She mailed it off to Be The Match, never really figuring she would be that one in 430 people who just happen match tissue types with a complete stranger. But about a year later, the organization contacted her.

“I got an email that kinda said, ‘You might be a match!’ And then I got a call that said, ‘Let’s go draw some blood!’ And then they said, ‘Let’s go give you a physical!’ And now, I give next week,” Jessica says.

That NPR story wasn’t her only inspiration. Jessica knew Diana Martinez, a member of the Senate Democratic staff, had donated bone marrow to a young leukemia patient a few years ago.

“I compare it often to, like, the day after ‘leg day,’ ” Diana says, “but, like, not just when you sit down or move; it was just, like, there.”

I asked her if donating had any affect on her brain or her heart — any emotional effect. Her answer made it sound like donating was an easy decision.

“I have five nieces and nephews,” she says, “and for me, one of the reasons that I was so willing to do it was thinking about them, and thinking like, if they needed something like that.”

Diana donated the traditional way — general anesthesia, big needles inserted into her hip bones. Jessica was scheduled to donate using a new technology that makes the process much easier.

“I will take injections for five days that will cause my bone marrow to over-produce stem cells, which will flow into my blood, and then I’ll give just like giving blood,” she says.

Where would these cells go? To a man suffering from an aggressive cancer. He’s close to her age, and probably shares her ethnicity, since matching is based on tissue type. That’s basically all Jessica knew — that plus the fact that while she was getting injections to prepare her to donate, this man was receiving massive doses of chemotherapy to prepare his body to accept her cells.

A few days later, I asked Julie Tilbury, the former nurse who manages Be The Match, to explain what that meant.

“The further we get into their pre-transplant regimine, the closer we get to the point of no return, where they’re ready to be transplanted, like her patient, today, is at his most vulnerable,” Julie says.

Julie was speaking on her cell phone from the hospital in Rockford, where Jessica was making her donation. Julie walked down the corridor, into Jessica’s room, and handed her the phone. By that point, she’d had needles in both arms for more than four hours (the process takes up to six hours), but Jessica sounded just as cheerful and enthusiastic as she had during our initial interview. She and her mom were making plans for the rest of their day — lunch at Rockford’s famous Beefaroo restaurant, followed by a nap, then they would head home to Springfield.

That was more than a week ago. Since then, Jessica has had no news — which, in the world of transplants, is good news.

Honestly, if it hadn’t been her, it could’ve been someone else: About 97 percent of caucasian patients do find a match. For Hispanics, the percentage drops to 80 percent. For African Americans, it’s just 66.

“And the more shocking statistic to me was, I heard (only) 37 percent of biracial people will find a match. And I have a biracial daughter,” Jessica says. “If she would need this sometime, she would have a hard time finding a match.”

Next year, Jessica and her marrow match could share their identities with each other. Jessica is intrigued by the notion of meeting someone who is an exact match to her tissue type, but she’s not at all comfortable with the prospect of the patient or his family uttering the words “thank you.”

“I just feel like the gratitude that a family has when they need something like this is so much greater than the tiny degree of sacrifice that we make by giving up a day to go get this done,” she says.

Although she knows it’s a long shot, she’s hoping her story may inspire someone else to do the same.