It was on the way to school, on a cold, wet morning earlier this year, that my youngest son started talking about one of the girls in his pre-school class: he was worried sick about her, because she had gone to a hospital in Lisbon, he said, because “bad bugs were killing the good bugs in her body”.
“When Indi [that’s the girl’s name, an abbreviation for Indira] returns, I am going to ask her to be my girlfriend”, he said, and the knot in my throat tightened to an almost unbearable degree.
Confirmation of what was already obvious came from the children’s teacher. Indi had been diagnosed with leukaemia, and she had been immediately sent to Lisbon’s main paediatric cancer treatment hospital. There was little information available, as it was still early days, but it was already obvious that a long, difficult battle lay ahead for the little four-year-old girl and her family.
As it also became obvious that Indi’s mother would not be able to continue working, in order to be with her daughter in Lisbon during treatment, and social support from the Portuguese state unfortunately being scarce and slow, a wave of solidarity kicked in. Donations were privately collected to help support the family’s basic needs, and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Portimão organised a concert to help raise funds – a concert that sold out completely.
In the mean time, Indi has proved to be a lucky girl in the midst of so much suffering: a compatible bone marrow donor was available on the national registry, and she has been subject to a transplant. Her evolution is now very positive, and although it will take many months, possibly even years, until my son’s friend is fully recovered and able to return to a ‘normal’ life, one of the main hurdles has been overcome.
Nevertheless, there are still many children, teenagers and adults out there, who need a bone marrow transplant to literally save their lives.
Personally, I was not really aware of what is involved in becoming a potential bone marrow donor, until I was confronted with Indi’s situation. I’d heard about leukaemia, I’d vaguely read several appeals for people to register as bone marrow donors, but it was something that I have to confess, was never quite at the top of my things-to-do list.
Indi, for the better or worse, would change this.
Within a week after I learned about her illness, I became a bone marrow donor, and so did both my eldest daughters.
In Portugal, all it takes is a small blood sample, and filling out a questionnaire, which we did at our local hospital. If the National Registry ever calls one of us because we have been selected as potential bone marrow donors for a patient, we will undergo further tests to certify that we are fully compatible with said patient. The bone marrow donation itself only takes place after the donor confirms his or her will to donate; it is anonymous and completely free of charge for the donor, and personally, I think undergoing a minor surgical intervention is a ridiculous ‘price’ to pay for saving someone’s life.
Someone, somewhere, saved Indi’s life. She was able to celebrate her 5th birthday last month, and she was feeling strong enough to hold a small birthday party at the nursery school, with all of her little friends, during a break from the treatments in Lisbon.
My son chose a book as a birthday present for Indi. Little does he know that all of us have received much more from Indi than we could ever offer her: we have received the gift of humanity, of solidarity, and of awareness.
Please, don’t wait for a sick child to appear in your life, like I did; don’t waste any time, and if you can, become a bone marrow donor right away.
More information about becoming a bone marrow donor:
In the UK:
British Bone Marrow Registry
The Leukaemia Society (UK)
Associação Portuguesa Contra a Leucemia
Centro de Histocompatibilidade do Norte
Centro de Histocompatibilidade do Sul
In the United States of America*:
National Marrow Donor Program
* with thanks to Anonymous #3