Well it’s officially official. My bone marrow transplant, formerly known as my stem cell transplant, is a go. In exactly twelve days, I shall be “re-born”. I’m not trying to sound deep or all metaphoric. Scientifically and medically speaking, I will be a whole new person. Everything in my bones and in my DNA that says I’m Cristina will be gone. I am my father’s daughter but come November 16, I will be much more than that. It’s an overwhelming thought and come to think of it, it is metaphoric.
In case you didn’t know yet, my father is going to be my bone marrow donor. After my only sister did not turn out to be a match, an extensive search by the national bone marrow registry turned up nothing. Not even one potential match. In a world where the average white person has 10-15 potential matches, this Hispanic had not a one. This hard reality sparked a new-found passion for me. If this is my reality, how many other Hispanics and minorities is this happening to? Apparently, too many are facing my same reality. A fire within me for this need to be filled began to grow inside me. As I voiced my concern to the media and the media began to validate my voice, my father was being tested as a potential half-match for my much needed transplant. This fire within me was about to have gasoline poured on it.
As my biological father, it was a scientific inevitability that he would be a half-match. We all get half of our DNA from our fathers and the other half from our mothers. My father was preferred by doctors over my mother because he’s never had children and that’s a bigger plus for his immune system that he would be passing onto me. My mother didn’t hide her disdain at the fact that she would not be my hero but that my father would be the one to save my life. A beloved church family member one day told my mother, “Don’t be upset! You already had the privilege of giving life to this wonderful creature. Now her father gets to experience the same!” My mother gave in instantly to that thought and had to admit to the intense significance of the situation. I’ll admit, it struck me too.
WARNING: If you are prone to crying while reading, please grab a tissue. Or two. This is about to get intense.
My dad owes me. I’m not an ungrateful child. He has done everything and anything for me but despite all that, the man just plain owes me. Big time.
In the summer of 2009, my parents, niece, and my husband and I, decided to take a weekend trip to a water park here in Texas a mere three hours away. A hint? It starts with ‘S’ and ends with ‘bahn’. My mother and my husband banded together in order to stay off the rides. They’re not big fans of bodies of water and slides that spit you out as they don’t know how to swim. They used my then 6 year old niece as an excuse to stay by the kiddie pools. My father and I, on the other hand, took the opportunity to partner up and get on every single ride the park had to offer. As the day began to come to an end and we prepared to leave, I asked my dad if we could get on one last ride. He of course said yes and we headed off, inner tube in tow, to the last ride of the day.
It was supposed to be the most relaxing ride in the whole park but it turned out to be our worst nightmare. The self-propelled river took us on a tour of the park and the signs indicated that the ride ends in the actual natural river from which the park gets it’s water. I told my dad we needed to get off before the end of the ride because the river is deep and he can’t swim. I know you know where this is going.
There was one last exit before the end of the ride and, you guessed it, we missed it. It wasn’t marked and it didn’t look like a very ‘official’ exit, so we kept going. I saw the end of the ride up ahead and my dad floating toward it in his tube ahead of me. We’d been separated a little ways back and I wasn’t able to remind him about the deep river at the end. I didn’t think twice about it and thought, “Oh, he’ll remember what I told him about the river being deep and he’ll just stay on his tube.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I came off the ride in my tube backward not even a minute after my father. As my tube turned to face forward slowly, I began to scan the crowd that was walking up the exit stairs to the left out of the river. No Dad. Hmm. I scanned the people in their tubes floating out ahead of me. Still no Dad. HMMMM. And then I saw it. A lonely tube out in the water about 10 yards away. There was violent splashing a few feet away from it. The lifeguards at the exit of the ride were chatting away with each other, completely oblivious to what was going on right in front of them.
“DADDY!!!,” I screamed at the top of my lungs as I jumped off my tube and swam furiously toward my drowning father. I swam up behind him, hooked my arms under his arms, and pulled him up enough out of the water so that he could finally breathe. He couldn’t say anything as he was coughing and gasping for air but his eyes said it all. He was happy to see me. The lifeguards finally swam up to us and helped my dad to the safe edge of the river. I was angry, scared, and grateful all at the same time. I’d almost lost my dad that day.
After yelling at the lifeguards for not doing their job and fuming at the management, all I wanted to do was go home with my family intact and forget about the whole thing. My worst nightmare had almost come true and I wanted to get as far away from that place as possible. I buried it deep and put it out of my mind and even got angry anytime my mother would bring it up. And I did make myself forget about it. But my father never forgot. He would only tell me now and again how I’d saved him and how he owed me his life. I would brush it off and tell him that I only did what any child would do for their parent. He would never reply but the disagreement on his face told me different.
I never thought about that day again until the day we were told that my father had been chosen as my bone marrow donor. I later asked my father if he was sure he wanted to go through with the surgery required for a bone marrow donation. He looked me square in the eyes and said, “You saved my life once. Now I get to save yours.”
I felt the air leave my lungs as I began to comprehend what he’d just said. He’d felt indebted to me for three years and I’d brushed it off like it was nothing. Now that my own life needed saving, I inherently understood how he felt about the day I’d saved his. As much as I had wanted to forget about that day, he hadn’t.
Whenever my dad had talked about that day at the water park, he would say it was the day he’d been reborn from the water. His brush with death had made him value his life and blessings on a much, much deeper level. I could never fully understand the immense value he had placed on what I had done for him until my own face-off with death. I can now say that I understand the magnitude of saving a life and the preciosity of preserving it. And now, in an irony that I’m sure is not lost on you, his rebirth has made mine possible. Had I lost my father on that fateful day, my life now on this earth would most assuredly be coming to an end. While my mother is also a half-match, she would not be the best candidate for me as a donor. I came from her womb and so her cells would be the same ones doctors are now trying to change.
And so, come November 16th, I too shall be reborn. My doctor tells me it will be my second birthday and should be celebrated with the same significance as my original birthday. My own bone marrow production, in which lies my DNA and immune system that has failed me, will be shut down by chemotherapy in the days leading up to the transplant. It will be replaced with two pints of my father’s healthy bone marrow, drawn out with surgery from his hip bones in his back that same day. He’ll be in pain for about a week while doctors keep a close eye on me in the hospital for about three weeks to make sure my body doesn’t reject his marrow. His immune system will slowly become my immune system. His blood type will be my new blood type. His DNA will be my full DNA, not just half. Future blood tests will show no more DNA traces of Cristina. But I get to live. My father’s debt will be cancelled out.
I’ll always be me in my heart, mind, and spirit even though on paper, I’ll actually be my father. I’m my father’s daughter and now he’ll also be the biggest part of me. So one day, even when he’s long gone from this earth, he will still in essence live on through me. I couldn’t ask for more noble blood to be running through my veins.
And who wouldn’t want a second birthday?
I’ll still be me. (Photo courtesy Diva Dulce Photography)