A hoot owl from outside my window woke me before dawn this morning. I slipped downstairs, made some tea, and watched the sun come up. Shafts of light, brilliantly bringing forth the new day, shined upon the beauty of spring on its way to the gardens.
In 2007 two babies were born – unrelated, unknown to each other, and unknown to my family. As the babies left the hospital to begin their journeys, they each left something behind…their umbilical cords. Today the babies are five-year-olds, off playing somewhere with trucks or dolls. Neither knows the other exists. They still know nothing of us. They do not know they are about to be joined in life, or of the battle a part of each of them will fight. They have no idea they are about to save a man.
Tomorrow, Cecil…my husband of twenty-seven years…will begin a stem cell transplant. His medical team has decided to use cord blood cells to avoid some of the more deadly complications that come with transplants. Cord stem cells are less mature than their adult counterparts. The host patient’s body is not as apt to reject cord cells because the young cells haven’t developed features that the host recognizes as foreign. Likewise, since the donor cells are immature, they are less likely to attack the host’s body, a problem called Graft Versus Host Disease. It is cutting edge medical technology.
Cecil needs two donor cords for his transplant, two lifelines with a genetic blueprint remarkably similar to his own. With so few cords available, the odds of finding what we need have never been good. Cecil has been living from one transfusion to the next. Time has grown short.
The phone rang last week. They’d found two cords, two perfect matches. It was time to move. We jolted from ‘Someday’ mode to ‘Get ready to go…now.’
Suddenly, he will be gone; I will be handling everything. He will be trying to stay alive; I will be trying to stay intact.
As we pass the mantle here at home, the cords of Cecil’s Babies, as we now call them, are on their way to the University of Virginia Medical Center, where they will, for the second time, foster life.
But first, the transplant team must kill what’s left of Cecil’s own immune system. To do that, they will nearly have to kill him. That means chemo-therapy straight from hell, and then more of the same. It means total body irradiation, and then more of that. He will lay limply in the bed, open sores festering everywhere. His hair will fall out. The color will drain from his face. The slightest thing could do him in. Three lines into his chest will try to keep him alive. Then, when there’s nothing left, when he is totally defenseless, the babies will enter the fray.
Cells from both babies will be introduced. They will incite each other. They will compete. The cells from one of the babies will eventually take over and engraft. As death hovers in the room, waiting for its chance, the dominant baby’s stem cells will bring Cecil back to life.
When it’s over, Cecil will have that baby’s blood type. He will have the baby’s immune system. He will need vaccinations and childhood shots again because his new cells will not have been immunized. His cheeks will be pink, like those of a baby. For him, as for a baby, life will start anew.
It will be a grueling process. With the best of outcomes, Cecil will nearly die before they’re done, and he will suffer so much from here to there that he will likely wish himself away several times. The odds that he will survive the ordeal are not something we can boast about. It’s strange that one would walk willingly down such a path, eager to bring himself around the dark corner that lies ahead…encrusted, as it will be, with webs and things that crawl, and every representation of death that one might conjure.
That he looks forward to what waits for him, and that he smiles now where he didn’t before, speaks to how wretched things have been. It measures, in the only way possible, the depth and the reach of the babies’ gift. Cecil sees only the sliver of life that has made its way back to him: the promise of more; the hope that it will not end sooner than he is ready to say goodbye.
Two beautiful babies. Their cords were cut, but not thrown away. Now they are saving us. The babies are coming to the rescue.