Saving a life is easy, but I didn’t

I was reading Hacker News a few weeks ago and I stumbled on a story: Amit Gupta needs you. It turns out that Amit is the thoroughly likeable founder of Photojojo.  Amit had the double misfortune to:

a) have acute leukemia, and

b) be South Asian.

The problem with the first one is obvious.  The problem with the second one is that the life-saving marrow transplant that Amit needs requires a donor with a similar genetic makeup, and South Asians are dramatically underrepresented in the registered donor pool.

I read the amazing page dedicated to finding Amit a donor, and thought back to 1995.  I was in my second year of college and there was a blood drive.  A representative from the National Marrow Donor Program was there near the cafeteria in the quad while I was donating.  She explained the marrow registry and asked me to sign up to be considered for a match for a marrow transplant.

At the time, the only way to donate marrow was to basically have someone drill holes in your bones and drain your skeleton, which kind of terrified me.  Nowadays, of course, most donations require nothing more than sitting still for a few hours with an IV watching television.  But after a lot of introspection, I decided that it was a rare occurrence in this world that you actually get to save the life of a stranger, and if skeleton-draining was the price of that, then so be it.  I was also reassured that most folks are never matched with anyone.

Back to Amit and the present, it was clear that my genetic makeup wasn’t going to be much help for him.  But I went over to and looked around.  I learned that it’s ridiculously easy these days to get tested and not very hard to donate if you’re matched.  Despite this, the need is skyrocketing.  Half of the people who need marrow transplants can’t locate a donor.

Then I realized – crap, how the heck are they going to get a hold of me if there’s a hit?  All they have for contact info is my college dorm address!  I can’t help Amit, but maybe I could help someone else in need.  So I fussed around with the website to update my contact data.  I couldn’t figure out how to find my old record, so I made a mental note to try and call them some time, and gave up.

Allow me to digress one more time before I get to the point.  Five months ago I sold my startup, Sparkbuy, to Google. There were mountains of paperwork, and one bit that didn’t get wrapped up nicely was mail forwarding.  Not email forwarding, mind you, but good, old-fashioned, paper-cut-on-your-tongue-from-sealing-the-envelope mail.  I submitted the change of address request, but for some reason, mail piled up in my old office.  They nagged me about it every few weeks.  I procrastinated. After many months I finally went and picked it up.

Today I was sorting through that mail.

Did you know that, when the marrow donation center finds a match, they try desperately to reach the potential donor?  Even if that person has moved from their dorm room long ago, even if their contact information has changed, even if they’re in a different state, even if 16 years have passed?  They try.  They look all over for ways to reach that person.

Almost 5 months ago, they found a match, and sent me a letter to the only address they could find for me.  To my old company.

Today I read it.

I called immediately, of course.  They said that they’d contact the patient’s doctor right away.  But they told me the odds were good that, since 5 months had passed, “they found another match, or that the patient… is no longer eligible.”

Joining the registry is free and requires nothing more than a cheek swab.  Please join.  If you’ve joined before, please update your contact information.


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