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My Dear Donor - A One-In-5 Million Bone Marrow Match Saved Her Life. What Were The Odds They'd Fall In Love?
BY TOM FEENEY
23 December 2004
On the day a priest came to her hospital bed and prayed over her withered body, Diana Abad would not have believed good fortune awaited.
She was a single mom, an emergency room nurse at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, a smart and incandescent woman who at age 33 had been in robust health.
Or seemed to be, until one day her back started to ache and another day her legs swelled. She had her blood tested and learned her white-cell count was absurdly high. Leukemia, her doctor said. Without a bone-marrow transplant, she would be dead in nine months.
Her parents, Nelson and Gladys Rios, sold their business in Puerto Rico to be with her. Gladys moved into Abad's townhouse in Englishtown to look after Abad's three daughters. Nelson moved into the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to look after her.
He bathed her, cleaned up after her when she vomited, carried her in his arms to the bathroom.
"My mom told him, 'You never took care of her like that when she was a baby,'" Abad said.
But her disease was ruthless and the treatment brutal. She lost her stamina and her hair. Her skin was blackened by radiation. Because her body was not producing platelets to help with clotting, she bled from every orifice.
One day in March 2000, she asked her dad to summon a priest to administer last rites. The priest anointed her with oil, making the sign of the cross on her forehead and her hands. Her father stood off in a corner of the room.
"May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up," the priest prayed.
Her father collapsed on the floor.
David Mason would not have believed in 1990 that by checking a box on a Navy form, he would set in motion the chain of events that led him to the love of his life. All he remembers was the form asked him to indicate if he would be willing to have his blood tested and the results entered into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program Registry.
"I just checked yes without really thinking about it," says Mason. He was 23 at the time.
He got out of the Navy, returned to his native Boston, went to work as a network administrator at a consulting firm and continued to believe, as he had for most of his life, that one day his Red Sox would beat the New York Yankees and win the World Series.
He didn't give the bone marrow registry another thought.
The marrow registry had been created by Congress in 1987 to pair up donors with people in need of transplants. The registry stores information about the tissue type of 5.5 million people.
Ten years after Mason checked that box, he received a phone call telling him his tissue might be a match for someone who needed a transplant. He agreed to go to Massachusetts General Hospital for further testing. When those tests confirmed the preliminary match, he was asked if he would be willing to donate.
He wasn't told anything about where his marrow would go.
He didn't know the recipient would be a woman or that she was just about his age or that she'd been divorced for three years. He wasn't told she had a laugh warm enough to thaw a New England winter.
He wasn't told she was near death. He wasn't told she had three daughters and two parents and a sister and a wide web of other relatives, friends and colleagues desperate to see her live.
He wasn't told that, among the millions of volunteers in the donor registry, he was her only match.
Without his marrow, Diana Abad was sure to die.
He didn't know that, but he agreed to donate his marrow just the same.
Marrow is the soft tissue found inside the large bones of the body. It produces platelets and red and white blood cells. Leukemia is a cancer of the blood; because of it, Abad's marrow was producing white blood cells uncontrollably.
The disease is sometimes treated with medicine or therapy. But the medicine was not proven in the spring of 2000, and Abad's disease was too advanced for chemotherapy alone. Replacing her unhealthy cells with the healthy blood-forming cells in the marrow of a donor was her only chance at survival, her doctors believed.
One-third of people who need marrow transplants find a match in their families. Nearly every member of Abad's family was tested. The Red Cross even flew in a cousin from a military base in Korea. There were no matches.
ONE IN 5 MILLION
Because tissue type is inherited, a match is far more likely to occur between people of the same race and ethnicity. But again there were no matches. The one person in 5 1/2 million whose marrow appeared suitable for the woman of Puerto Rican ancestry was a man whose ancestors were Scandinavian, Polish and English.
"We focused our search on Puerto Ricans and her match turned out to be a blond-haired, blue-eyed guy," said Naomi Milner, a friend and fellow Robert Wood Johnson nurse who helped organize a drive to get people in the hospital community and beyond to have their tissue tested. "It goes to show you, it was meant to be."
Mason was put under general anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital. A doctor inserted hollow needles into his pelvic bones and slowly withdrew the marrow.
One day, after the last rites had been administered and after all of Abad's sick marrow had been killed by radiation and chemotherapy, a doctor appeared at her bedside at Sloan-Kettering with a clear bag of the thick, red marrow harvested from Mason's bones.
The procedure was all-or-nothing. If the transplant grafted - if her body accepted Mason's marrow and used it to begin producing healthy blood - she stood a good chance of survival.
If not, she was living her last hours on earth.
"Diana," she remembers the doctor telling her as he waved the bag over her bed, "this is your life."
Diana Abad would not have believed on the day she bought David Mason a pocket watch and picked out a special inscription that she would give it to him in person.
Her marrow transplant had gone extraordinarily well. Her body began making healthy blood. Her hair and her stamina came back. So did her laugh. In time, she went back to work at Robert Wood Johnson as a transplant coordinator.
Not long after the procedure, she wrote a thank-you letter to her anonymous donor. The rules of the marrow registry require that that initial correspondence be anonymous, said Patrick Thompson, a spokesman for the group. The letter was vetted to make sure it contained no identifying information.
Later, though, donor and recipient were given a chance to learn each other's identities.
Mason resisted at first. He didn't want to seem as if he were soliciting a thank-you. But when he learned through someone involved with the bone marrow program that the recipient very much wanted to contact him, he agreed to let them give her his name and phone number.
That was late in November 2001. Abad kept the number by the phone for a few days until she worked up the courage to call the man whose blood type by then was identical to her own.
They don't remember much about that first call. They remember that it was emotional, that Abad cried through much of it. And they remember that it was short. They made no specific plans to speak again.
But a few weeks later, when Mason was traveling to South Jersey to meet a buddy from his Navy days, he stopped in Englishtown unannounced on his way through. He was hoping to meet Abad, but she was out.
A GOOD-LOOKING GUY
Her teenage daughters told her when she returned home, "A good-looking man came to the door looking for you."
She called the cell phone number Mason had left her, and they made arrangements to meet while he was on his way back to Boston.
They had lunch together at a restaurant in Freehold on a Sunday. They found an easy rapport, talking and laughing through the afternoon.
She thanked him again. She handed him the pocket watch she had planned to mail. "Time is precious," the inscription read.
Once he was in his Jeep and on his way back to Boston, she remembers thinking to herself: "This is weird. He's my donor. Why am I feeling butterflies?"
Even after she felt those first flutters of romance, Diana Abad could not have foreseen what would happen one week before Christmas 2004, beneath the tree at Rockefeller Center.
She and Mason had stayed in touch by telephone after the lunch in Freehold.
In April 2002, Abad's nurse friend Naomi Milner and Milner's husband Jim were going to Cape Cod. Abad went along. She invited Mason to join them.
"You could tell right away there was something there," Milner says. HITTING IT OFF That August, Abad had a party to celebrate her survival. She invited all of her friends and family as a way to thank them for the blood drives and the marrow tests and all of the other kindnesses they had shown her. Mason was there, as were his two older brothers and their wives. It was the families' first meeting. They hit it off as well as the donor and recipient had.
"It was just something that was meant to be," Gloria Rios remembers telling her daughter. "He saved your life for a purpose. You're going to be happy. You deserve to be happy after all you've been through."
Abad and Mason spent nearly two years driving back and forth between Englishtown and Boston. One would visit the other at least once a month. Their romance continued to blossom.
Mason had been in long-term relationships before, none resulting in marriage. A million things could go wrong between a man and a woman. He knew that. But this one felt different.
They took a step toward a future together in the summer of 2003, when they went on a family vacation to Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. The trip gave Abad's daughters - a 17-year-old and twin 14-year-olds - a chance to know Mason better. When the trip was over, they told their mom they approved.
They took another step this year, after the consulting firm where Mason had worked since he left the Navy downsized him out of a job. They decided it was time for him to move to New Jersey.
He arrived one day in April with a 25-foot Ryder truck packed to the roof. He took a job as a crewman on a tugboat for ConocoPhillips in Elizabeth. He and Abad began to merge their lives.
It would be impossible to say with certainty that there has never before been a case where a donor and recipient have married. Thompson, the spokesman for the registry, recalls an instance where a donor's son married her recipient's sister. He could recall instances, too, where donor and recipient became great friends. But after asking around among the staff of the registry, he said nobody could recall a marriage.
Abad, 38, and Mason, 37, had decided that it would be prudent to wait before having any serious conversations about taking that step themselves. They needed time to save some money. But he had a health scare of his own at Thanksgiving dinner - a severe allergic reaction to macadamia nuts - and he decided to heed the inscription on the pocket watch.
Time is precious.
He took Abad to New York last Saturday for dinner and a show and a walk around Rockefeller Center.
Beneath the twinkling tree he pulled a ring box from his pocket.
He fumbled to get it open, and then he slipped the ring on Abad's finger before he asked his question.
"What does this mean?" she asked the man who had given her a second chance at life.
But she knew what it meant.
And he knew what her answer was.