Thanksgiving Harvest

I asked one of our second year students, Gretchen Koplin, if she would be so kind and share a story with all of you—it is a story of synchronicity about thanks, giving and the harvesting of stem cells.

Best wishes for a special time of thanks for family, friends and the fellowship of our community.


Gretchen’s story:

A little over two years ago, I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), and my recommended treatment regimen included a bone marrow/stem cell transplant.  I was lucky enough to have four viable donors, including two who were a 10 out of 10 match for me.  Going into the transplant process, the only thing that I knew about my donor was that he was a 42-year-old male who lived outside of the U.S.  Given that the cells must be infused into the recipient within 72 hours of being harvested from the donor, this meant that my transplant process needed to be a feat of coordination involving on-time international flights and a courier with my new cells in an Igloo cooler.

Two days after transplant, I was in the hospital recovering from the chemotherapy used to prepare my body for the new stem cells, and waiting for my new cells to engraft.  Meanwhile, my father was an attendee at my employer’s biggest fundraising dinner of the year.  Seated at his table were a bunch of his cronies who all knew me and were familiar with my health challenges, but there were one or two other people there too who did not know me.  My father responded to various questions from his table-mates about my current status and updated them with the latest.  “She received her cells on Tuesday; the flight landed at 4:30pm at DIA, by 5:30pm the cells were at the hospital getting checked over, and at 7:00pm she received the transplant.”   Whereupon, one man at the table spoke up, “I work for British Airways, and I met the courier and escorted her through security and customs with your daughter’s cells!”  Many months later, when I was telling this story in my Kabbalah class, I discovered that this same man was also a Kabbalah Experience student.

One year after my transplant, in November of 2010, I was told by my clinic that I could have anonymous contact with my donor.  I knew that I wanted to write to him, but I was also stumped.  What do you say to a person that you’ve never met, but who has literally saved your life?  The obvious answer, of course, is “THANK YOU!”  But, regardless of how I phrased it, the words didn’t seem to be enough.  This person gave of himself so that my life was saved!  Plus, how do you start the letter?  “Hi, how are you?”  “Hey, what’s up dude?”  I was an English major in college, but was completely at a loss for words.  So, because I couldn’t think of what to say, I said nothing and I never wrote the letter.

Early September of 2011 was a time for celebration; I was gearing up for my birthday, and had just observed the one-year anniversary of being back to work full-time.  In addition, I decided to start volunteering at the hospital and offer support to oncology and transplant patients, and I was very excited to start “giving back”.  I took a couple of vacation days to have a nice long birthday weekend, and I had resolved that I would write the thank you letter to my donor during this time, as I was tired of feeling guilty for not having written.  Four days before my 42nd birthday, on the very same evening that I attended my first volunteer training to start volunteering at the hospital, I took my dog for a walk and picked up my mail.  In my mailbox was a letter from my donor:

“Dear Recipient,

I hope this finds you well.  I have wanted to mail you for quite some time but never got around to it.  As stipulated by the stem cell donation program I am not permitted to give you too much information about myself.  But I thought I would take a couple moments and share some insight on me, and possibly give you a better idea whose stem cells you received.

As much as my donation (I hope) has helped you, the opportunity to take part in the program and actually have a match has helped me get over a painful part of my life.  Six years ago my father was diagnosed with AML, and after a short but fierce fight, passed away.  The week I returned to Germany there was a stem cell donation drive in my hometown here.  I saw the opportunity to donate my stem cells as a chance for a part of him to live on while helping someone else overcome Leukemia.  It was very rewarding and somewhat therapeutic for me when the letter came that there was a match.  As I said the chance to share my stem cells with you has helped me in more ways than you can imagine.  I hope you are doing well and will have the chance to enjoy the life ahead of you.

In good health,

Your Donor”

This was a remarkable letter in so many ways.  What struck me almost immediately was that while the transplant obviously gave me so much, it hadn’t occurred to me that my donor would receive such benefit from the process.  I had been visualizing the relationship between the two of us as completely one-sided, and it was amazing to know that I had affected his life, just as he had affected mine.  But also, and this is something that I only realized after I had shared this story with my Kabbalah class, by writing to me first my donor had helped me yet again; when I was stuck and couldn’t seem to find the words, he had reached out into the void to help me through my awkwardness.  After reading his letter, I was no longer unsure of what to say, and when I sat down to write him back the words flowed quite easily.

I have recently completed release forms that will enable the two of us to have direct contact with one another, now that I have passed the two-year anniversary of my transplant.  I am very much looking forward to getting to know him better in the future, and discovering more about the connection between the two of us.


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