By Heather Lynn — Director of Global Special Events for DKMS
In my role at DKMS, I am used to selling the idea of our organization at fundraisers and charity events. But nothing could prepare me for what I learned about myself when I became a stem cell donor.
“Are you sitting down?”
The call came in the middle of the pandemic lockdown in the Northeast. I was staying with my best friend and her daughter at their home in New Jersey rather than cramp myself in my midtown Manhattan apartment. Pandemic — a moment in time when everyone felt as disconnected from one another as possible.
It was my colleague on the other line. Usually, a call like this means I have to go into work mode or damage control. I braced myself but did not expect what I heard next — I was a perfect donor match for someone with blood cancer, and I was about to become one of the few employees at DKMS to donate bone marrow to save someone’s life. I screamed with joy.
Through my role as Director of Global Special Events for DKMS I’ve grown very close to the cause. I have seen how much someone’s life can change with a blood cancer diagnosis — the fear, the pain, the loss. It can be devastating. I have spent the past five years working to elevate the message about donating, how easy it is to sign up and give back. That is why I knew that I could, and had to, donate when I got the call. Plus, I was a perfect match, and this person’s only match.
How could I say anything but yes?
When I first became a donor I signed up as an afterthought, partly because it felt like the right thing to do but also because it was so easy to sign up. A registration and a simple cheek swab get sent away to a lab where it is analyzed and matched to people who need a donation. If you aren’t a match, you stay in the database until you are 63. The opportunity to save a life lasts for a very long time.
After I hung up the phone I realized I wasn’t just giving stem cells. I was giving something much bigger: hope.
I’m always hopeful; that is how I choose to live my life. I believe that people are inherently good, even empathetic. Sometimes we need to model that and embody hope so other people see that it’s okay to embrace it as well. Hope drives us to do what we came here to do. Hope leads us to our purpose. A cancer diagnosis is like a thief of hope, and I wanted to give that back to this person in need.
Now, I won’t say I wasn’t nervous; I was. So was my family. We had just pulled through some difficult times involving family members in the hospital and now here was one of us *volunteering* to go in for a procedure they knew so little about. But the deeper I got into the process, the more those nerves were replaced with something else: purpose.
I felt so much alignment in being a donor, literally sharing parts of my body with a stranger. Despite any superficial or idealistic differences we may have, there is an intrinsic connection we all share that nothing can destroy. There is a piece of us, a divine essence, that cannot be destroyed, it cannot be crushed. That flame will always be lit and cannot be taken away. It was now my purpose to stoke this person’s flame with a bit of my own.
My confidence helped my family get on board. Their support, and my connection to them, was integral to my donation. Having them around me before, during, and after the procedure filled me with strength. Before going in, my beautiful sister gave me a bracelet she had made for me: two red beads, signifying me and the person I was donating to, connected by amethyst and surrounded by black beads for strength. She would be there with me, connected by this bracelet, as I would soon be connected to this person in need.
When the day came to donate, I was fortunate to do it close to where my family lives in the midwest.
As the process was underway I thought about what the stem cells meant for this person, and yet another thing I was able to give as a donor — time. What a powerful thing time can be. As a spiritual person I think time is one of the closest connections we can have to the spirit. It’s a form of love, in a way, to give someone that opportunity. This realization also made me appreciate the time that I had with my family, my friends, who I choose to give my energy to…time is the most limited resource we have as humans and we’re fortunate to have the time that we do.
Knowing that we have more time allows us to live more presently, which allows us to feel more connected to others. I was grateful for the time I was given and happy to give that gift forward.
It’s at this point that most people who consider donating see what is being given and ask themselves what they would get out of this endeavor. Since my donation in August I have realized, just as I gave gifts, I received an important one in return — a deeper connection to the people in my life and the world around me.
I am a certified yoga instructor when I’m not raising funds. Yoga taught me to see outside my own experience and participate more in my own life — basically, how to get out of my own head and into the world. One of the big discoveries of my journey was the understanding that the keys to our hearts lie in other people. Humans are social creatures. We cannot get through life alone, and why would we want that? A piece of me is now connected to this other person; a piece that I was holding on to, it seems, for them. Giving that away made me feel closer to my true self and closer to fulfilling my own purpose in this world.
The procedure also helped me learn more about myself. I learned that I was worthy of doing this, as what I had in my body, my stem cells, was all I needed. I learned what I am capable of. I learned the importance of the time I have with my family, who holds me up in my life, and how they see me. Not to toot my own horn, but when I told people I was donating stem cells to a stranger many of them told me I was a hero, that they expected something selfless like that from me — I was deeply touched. These are not things we think of ourselves in day-to-day life and sometimes we need that connection from outside ourselves to see us the way others do.
I gave stem cells, but what I received was a deeper understanding of myself and a closer connection to the people in my own life. We are all in this together, trying to connect the pieces that make our hearts feel that they are at home wherever we may be. My donation was just a couple months ago and I’m sure I will discover new insights about myself as I continue to reflect on the process.
If you are thinking at all about becoming a donor I would emphatically recommend it. I gave someone a new opportunity at life with my donation, and I like to believe they gave me a new opportunity to appreciate my own. To put it another way — I gave someone hope and time, and they gave me back a greater connection to my own life.
Join Heather and 10 million other amazing registered donors. Sign up at DKMS.org/register.