Articles: The Most Generous Gift

FROM The Irish Times

A young girl gets a chance to live and a father of two makes a life-giving gift. Denise Deegan meets two people with an unusual friendship.

She wears a bright orange Tommy Girl T-shirt. Her hair is short and spiky, her eyes, hazel. She is fifteen. Sitting opposite her, leaning forward in conversation, is an attractive father-of-two in his late thirties. They have two things in common. Both are called Chris. And he saved her life. Listening to them you would never tell. Christina is more interested in talking about horses than what she has been through. And Christy treats her with the kind of healthy irreverence one reserves for family and friends. Six years ago, knowing nothing about Christina, Christy donated bone marrow to save her life.

Their story goes back fifteen years, to before Christina even became ill. Christy Dodd joined the bone marrow register in the hope that he would be a match for a baby called Jayne, a relative of his wife Karen’s, who had a blood disorder and needed a transplant. Christy was not a match and though Jayne did find a suitable donor she lost her struggle for life. She would have completed her Junior Certificate this year.

Nine years after giving his sample, and completely out of the blue, Christy received a call at work from a representative of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS). His blood had been matched with that of a nine-year-old girl who needed a transplant. Would he be interested in having more tests and learning about what might be involved? No pressure was applied. Christy was told nothing more about the potential recipient and was reassured that there were other matches outside of himself.

When I ask Christy how he felt at the time, there isn’t a trace of false bravado. “I wasn’t sure. Nine out of ten of my family and friends were against it. They said, it wasn’t as if I knew the girl. It had nothing to do with me, so I shouldn’t get involved. They were nervous for me because they didn’t know enough about it. Very little was publicly known about bone marrow transplantation at the time.”

It was Christy’s own life experiences that encouraged him to go ahead. His own daughter, Kellie, had just undergone a heart operation at Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children at the age of six months. He felt for the other family, imagining what they must have been going through. Also, his brother-in-law, ‘Spanner’ had recently been diagnosed with cancer. “We were very close.” After a series of tests, Christy was selected as the most suitable donor. He agreed to go ahead. This involved one day and an overnight in hospital where, under anaesthetic, bone marrow was aspirated from his pelvis. A week later he was back at work.

The day after his donation, the day Christina actually received it, Christy’s good friend Spanner died. It was some comfort to know that, on that day, someone else was being given a chance at life.

That someone else was Christina Kavanagh who had been diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia at the age of one-and-a-half and was on her second relapse at the age of nine. The bone marrow transplant was her only hope. Christina’s mum, Joan, never doubted that they would find a donor. “I have great faith. I knew it would happen. But when it did we were so grateful. Afterwards, we sent cards to Christy through the staff at Pelican House – at that stage, there couldn’t be any direct contact between the families. The Christmas after the transplant, Christina made a crib for Christy’s family. And one and a half years later, when her confirmation was coming up, she decided that she’d like him to be her sponsor.” This of course meant that they would have to meet.

Up to two thirds of all bone marrow transplants in Ireland are between related donors and recipients. According to Olive O’Neill of the IBTS, in the case of unrelated transplants, less than 5% of donors and recipients meet. It is not encouraged. The worry is that the transplant might not work and this might cause distress for the donor. Also, both sides must want to meet and, in many cases, the recipient is too busy coping with recovery.

Christina, Christy and their families did meet under the supervision of the medical teams from the IBTS (whose care Christy had been under) and Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children (who looked after Christina). In the run up to the get together, nerves were riding high. Christy, for example, while feeling very good inside about helping Christina, was afraid of a fuss being made. As it happened, the evening went very well.

Since then, both families have become close, meeting regularly. “We go down to the farm in Wexford twice or three times a year”, says Christy. “Our kids, Lee and Kellie ride on Christina’s horses. Christina’s brother, Martin, and I go golfing. Of course Joan’s cooking is another big attraction.”

Joan believes that it was Christina’s determination that got her through years of illness. This year, she was long listed for the under-sixteen, pony A section of the Irish showjumping team to represent Ireland in the European Championships. She also completed her Junior Certificate. Unfortunately, the little girl ultimately responsible for Christina’s recovery, Jayne, never made it to her Junior Cert. It is a comfort to her parents, though, that something positive has come of their tragedy.

The poignancy of this case is unusual. One of the best things about bone marrow transplantation is that no one need die for a donation to be made, as in the case of unrelated organ transplantation. Bone marrow regenerates itself so won’t be missed. There are just under 18,000 names on the Irish bone marrow registry, which is part of a worldwide database, Bone Marrow Donors Worldwide of 8.9 million volunteers. “So”, according to Olive O’Neill “if we need to find a match for an Irish person there is a good chance we will.”

People wishing to join the registry can get leaflets and application forms in blood donor clinics, by contacting http://www.ibts.ie or (01) 4322836.

 

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