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Bone-Marrow Donation Leads to Friendship, Soul-Searching

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Long before they ever met, Elly saved Rhonda’s life.

Elly’s name had been on a national bone marrow donor list for two years when the Red Cross called. A 24-year-old woman was desperately ill with leukemia. Would she come in for a blood test?

Elly might be the one person among millions who could help this stranger.

Sure, she would try.

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Then the blood test results came back: She was a nearly perfect match.

Elly had her bone marrow extracted, and checked periodically on the progress of the woman, who had been given just a 1-in-5 chance of survival.

By law, the two women were barred from knowing each other’s identity for a year.

After that, Elly Bertrand, the donor, and Rhonda Dietze Jensen, the recipient who beat the odds, became acquainted. It turned out that among the 3.7 million people on the bone marrow donor list, some of them continents away, these two women were practically neighbors: They lived 77 miles apart.

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They wrote each other, called, met and became friends.

Five years passed, and Rhonda was sick again; her kidneys were failing.

The best option: a transplant.

The best donor candidate: Elly.

But Elly had already made one sacrifice. This surgery was more complicated, the recovery much longer. There were her three young sons to consider. What if something went wrong?

Rhonda didn’t think she could dare approach her.

“How,” she says, “do you ask a person to save your life twice?”

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Truth is, Elly had tried once before to be a Good Samaritan.

It was a baby boy who needed a marrow transplant she had read about in her local newspaper. Elly thought of her sons. And when she saw a photo of the baby with his deep blue eyes, she couldn’t resist.

But she wasn’t a match. Two years later, when the call came, Elly didn’t hesitate. “If I have good health, I might as well share it,” she says.

Her mother was terrified. Co-workers said she was foolish, even crazy. A long needle stuck into your bone? For a mother, a husband, a child--of course.

But a stranger?

“Everybody told me they suck the bone marrow out of your spine, and you’re going to be paralyzed,” Elly remembers in her husky voice.

She wasn’t deterred by those falsehoods, though she confesses that a photo of the needle and syringe made her flinch.

But Elly has always been stubborn, even as a child when she defied her mother’s orders and rode her favorite cow around their farm.

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“My family pretty much knows if I’m going to do something, nothing will stop me,” she says.

Her father-in-law, Jim Bertrand, concurs. “Once she’s made up her mind,” he says with a laugh, “it’s like laying up a brick wall.”

So on a March day in 1994, Elly entered a Minneapolis hospital, two incisions were made into the back side of her pelvic area, and marrow was extracted from her pelvic bones; it is a tedious process, with the substance sucked out almost by the teaspoonful until about a liter is drawn.

Three hundred miles away, a weak, pale but hopeful Rhonda waited in her hospital bed in Milwaukee. She knew it was the day. She eyed the clock; she wondered about the mysterious donor.

They didn’t know it then, but Elly, 35, and Rhonda, 30, had much in common, from their fresh-scrubbed looks and farm roots to their plain-spoken ways. Both also are shy, preferring the sidelines to the spotlight.

There was, of course, one big difference: Elly was hearty enough to work two physical jobs; Rhonda was struggling to stay alive.

After months of chemotherapy for her leukemia, Rhonda’s doctors had suggested a marrow transplant. But there were no good matches among about a dozen relatives tested, including three siblings. The donor list was next.

By then, Rhonda’s chances of survival were just 20%. But she refused to be discouraged.

“If one person has made it in my situation, then I’ll be the second,” she told herself. “As long as it’s not zero percent, you think you’ll be the one.”

Donor, Recipient Find Much in Common

A cooler with a bag of flesh-colored liquid arrived in Rhonda’s hospital room at 12:10 a.m. Her family took pictures.

This was, after all, a momentous delivery--the promise of life itself.

Within weeks, Rhonda’s white blood count rose. But complications followed: Fluid built up in the sac around her heart. She had double vision, blood in her urine. She threw up almost daily.

And the grafted bone marrow cells started attacking her body; medication to stop that blocked the blood flow to her hipbones, and Rhonda needed surgery to replace both hips.

Still, Rhonda was lucky. She says she was one of just three survivors among more than 20 bone marrow recipients she had seen come and go from the Milwaukee hospital within six months.

At her one-year checkup, Rhonda was handed an envelope containing a piece of paper with Elly’s name, address and phone. She was shocked to discover her donor lived nearby.

All those months, Elly had been itching to meet Rhonda.

But now that she knew her donor’s name, Rhonda wondered what she would say. “Thank you” is for a birthday gift or flowers. But for saving a life, it just doesn’t do it.

Neither woman remembers who made the first move, but they began exchanging letters, snapshots and phone calls.

They discovered they enjoyed the same things: the fragrance of lilacs, the calm of camping under the stars, the company of cats and dogs, the comfort of Sundays in church.

“We’re more alike than we thought we would be,” Rhonda says. “We both have faith in God that he’ll lead us in the right direction.”

It took Rhonda’s sister, Brenda McKay, to unite the two women. When she planned Rhonda’s bridal shower, she knew there would be the typical toasters and blenders, so she arranged a special gift: Elly.

Weeks later, Elly attended Rhonda’s wedding; she received a standing ovation when the pastor called her to the bridal table to salute her--attention that still makes her wince with embarrassment.

As the friendship deepened, Rhonda’s health worsened.

Radiation she needed before her transplant had scarred her kidneys. At first they worked at 30% of normal, then 20%, then 10%.

Something had to be done. Dialysis was a possibility. But a kidney transplant offered better prospects for long-term survival. Two family members were tested. But there was a better candidate.

It was the woman who was Rhonda’s genetic twin.

‘What If Your Other Kidney Fails?’

After Rhonda told her kidney transplant doctor she knew her marrow donor, the next question was obvious:

“Do you think you’d consider asking her?”

“No way!” Rhonda replied.

She smiles and her cheeks flush as she recalls that conversation and jokes that she feared Elly might say: “What do you want next? My arm?”

But there were serious reasons for reservations: A kidney transplant is major surgery, far more invasive than extracting bone marrow. It is a four- to five-hour operation with a six-week recovery. It can leave a foot-long scar.

And while thousands of people donate bone marrow to strangers, live kidney donations to non-family members are very unusual.

But after consulting with family and Helen Nelson, transplant coordinator at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, Rhonda decided she had to ask. The only question was how.

She decided against a personal visit, thinking it would put too much pressure on Elly for an immediate answer. “All I wanted to do was inform her . . . give her a chance to think about it, talk about it, pray about it, make her decision,” she says.

It took Rhonda four months to craft a five-page letter. Nowhere in it did she directly ask for a kidney.

“I have been praying about how to go about telling you,” she wrote Elly. “I feel bad pressuring you with my situation when you already have done so much for me.”

“I know this is a lot to digest and that you will need time with your family. . . . But I felt that for my own peace of mind I had to at least . . . give you the option to decide if this would be something you would be willing to consider.”

She pasted a sticker at the bottom of the letter that read: “Nothing sweeter than a friend.”

Elly already had heard from Rhonda’s sister about her kidney problems; no one mentioned a transplant, but Elly had her suspicions.

“I knew her immune system was mine now,” Elly says, “and I was probably her best bet, but I kind of dismissed that thought. I didn’t want to think about it.”

But after receiving Rhonda’s letter, Elly called the hospital transplant coordinator that same day, requesting information.

Nelson urged Elly not to rush into a decision--especially considering her family and her job, milking cows.

“We’re taking away one of your kidneys,” she cautioned. “You work on a farm. You could fall off a ladder. . . . You have three young kids. This is nothing you drop everything to do.”

Elly consulted with friends and family. She was thrilled when her husband, Randy, who had had two relatives undergo kidney transplants, didn’t try to dissuade her.

“You’ve got a big decision,” he said.

But some of her five siblings objected, peppering her with tough questions: What if your other kidney fails? What if a brother or sister needs one? What if one of your sons needs one?

“I could ‘what if’ myself until I’m blue in the face,” she told Nelson. “You can’t live today wondering what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

On March 11, to mark the five-year anniversary of the bone marrow transplant, Elly sent Rhonda a vase of silk lilacs with a note: “I’ve kind of made my decision but my family’s against it. Pray for them to go my way.”

Rhonda burst into tears reading the note, but tried not to get her hopes up.

Elly underwent extensive tests, including a physical and a psychological exam.

After she passed, she called Rhonda and asked: “Are you busy on May 5?”

Donor Refuses to Be Called Heroic

The night before surgery, Helen Nelson gave Elly a “Precious Moments” figurine of an angel.

“I don’t get to meet many people like her in my job,” she says. “She just felt this was something she was put on this earth to do. She made a huge impact on me. I just get teared up thinking about her.”

That same night, Rhonda was nervous. Elly, the bone marrow donor, had been a stranger. Elly, the kidney donor, was a friend. “I knew who I was putting through the misery,” she says.

The surgery was successful; six hours after Elly returned to her room, she was walking--a necessary regimen to prevent complications.

Within five days she was home. Six weeks later Elly was back in the barn, milking cows, kneeling more and bending less. She also works a second job, making trusses in a factory.

And she rejects any suggestions that her good deed was heroic.

“It made me feel worthwhile,” she says with a shrug. “I guess I just like to help people.”

Naturally, Rhonda and her family feel otherwise.

“We always let her know she’s special,” says Rhonda’s sister, who brought her casseroles during her recuperation. “But you can’t repay her. How many times can you say ‘thank you’ for giving this great gift of life to our family?”

Rhonda, who is a teacher, has tried. She has called, sent cards and letters. “I think she knows the way I feel,” she says.

Rhonda pauses for a moment, then turns toward Elly and quietly adds:

“I’m just thankful that God made someone that’s this kind of person.”

Their bond, she adds, will last all their lives.

“She’s a part of me.”


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