Bone Marrow Heroes

Michelle lived almost an hour away from the gym and was not the most popular gymnast on the team, even among the coaches. She had transferred from a little gym out in the country, near where she lived on a farm. She missed a lot of practices, didn’t work very hard and seemed to be in a daydream much of the time. Later, we found out why.   Her brother, Patrick, was very sick and needed a bone marrow transplant.

Her parents often had to drive him to a hospital three hours away and she was too young to be allowed in the hospital. As time went on and their insurance money was used up, they couldn’t afford to pay for gymnastics training and competitions.  But they had come to depend on our coaches, Sandra and Jay, to keep her after practices until they got home from the hospital, overnight and weekends when they were forced to stay at the last minute because of one of the many medical crises. So she still came to the gym (our coaches must have paid her meet fees) and spent many hours and days at their home.   She became one of their family, part-time, but one of the family and part of our gym family.

Jay found out that there was a scarcity of bone marrow donors on the National Bone Marrow Registry, mainly because they cost $75 to perform and were painful to endure. The day after he heard Patrick needed a donor, he had himself tested. Sandra and their girls, Megan and Britney, tested that Saturday. Britney told me that she had promised Michelle and Patrick that the whole gym would test. There were 500 students in the gym. That would cost $37,000 just for the tests, not to mention the task of talking everyone into taking a painful test. I, myself, have always been afraid of just regular needles. All the team girls had, by now, heard the stories of the huge needle they stick down your spine and how much it hurts when they do a bone marrow test.

Four of the girls on the team had parents who were doctors. The next week I saw them in Jay’s coach’s office in the middle of the afternoon before practice. Two of them I had never seen at the gym or a meet before. Their daughters always said they were too busy to come to the gym and watch.

A “Helping Heroes” sign, with a picture of Michelle and Patrick, appeared on the wall of the foyer of the gym the next day. It listed the six people who had already been tested and registered with the National Bone Marrow Registry and had 494 more numbers and lines for names. Every day Jay, Britney or Sandra and sometimes Megan stood by the sign as we came in and looked at us and then the sign. Sometimes one of them sat in the foyer talking with Michelle.

It seemed for weeks practice was always being disrupted with parents calling complaining that their children were driving them crazy about getting some ridiculous, expensive and dangerous medical procedure. Coach talked on the phone almost constantly, even when he was on the floor coaching. I don’t know how he did it, but it seemed that we worked out harder during that time than we ever had. And names just kept appearing on the hero’s list. Five weeks later, all 500 numbers on the list had a name or two beside it.

Not all of them were from the gym. It seemed that there were some lines with two names. Not everyone in the gym was a suitable candidate or had some medical conditions themselves. But for every one of them, there was a substitute donor – a friend, a relative, a neighbor. I don’t know where all the money came from to do the testing. I suspect the doctors in the gym had something to do with that.  None of the girls would say.

Michelle’s brother, Patrick, got his bone marrow transplant, but died after a year and a half. The bone marrow didn’t come from anyone in the gym, but from someone all the way across the country. A few years later, Michelle’s parents divorced and she stopped coming to the gym. It had to have been hard for her for all those years – dealing with being alone, shuffled around, death and divorce. But she had as everyone of us in this gym had – someone who always was and always would be behind her no matter what – Sandra and Jay, our coaches.

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