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Imagine a dried-out sponge… no moisture, no spring or flexibility, just a hole-y husk capable of little else besides absorbing something new.

That was the condition of Brenda Reiner’s bone marrow before she received a life-saving bone marrow infusion from an anonymous donor five years ago. Unfortunately, that was also the condition of her life: She had received two different blood cancer diagnoses within four years. Along the way, the Garrettsville native had also lost her marriage to divorce and had lost her job due to illness. She felt like a dried-up sponge.

Brenda’s mother had told her, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” That seemed hard to believe at the time. However, all Brenda could do from her weakened position was to choose what type of attitude she would take, as one day led to the next. Instead of succumbing despair, depression and hopelessness, Brenda chose faith, hope and love.

Brenda recalls, “In April 2008 I was diagnosed with AML (Acute Myeloid Leukemia) and went through extensive chemotherapy. Then in January 2011, I was diagnosed with MDS-Myelodisplastic Syndrome (another form of leukemia), and needed chemotherapy before being able to accept a bone marrow transplant (through Cleveland Clinic). I was placed on the bone marrow registry through Be The Match, with the hopes of finding a match.”

In order for a proper match to be made, 12 markers or proteins from the donor’s DNA had to be a perfect match for 12 markers within Brenda’s DNA (specifically, Human Leukocyte Antigen typing).  According to the National Marrow Donor Program, someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer like leukemia every three minutes. For many of the thousands who are diagnosed annually, their only hope for a cure is a bone marrow transplant. Over the past 25 years, Be The Match (operated by the NMDP), has managed the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world.

Eventually, a match was found for Brenda and the process was put in place for a transplant. At this point, all Brenda knew was that the matching donor was from Germany. For privacy reasons, she was not permitted to know who her donor was, nor were they to know who she was for two years after the transplant.

Brenda’s journey back from hopelessness began with that anonymous bone marrow transfusion, which just so happened to get scheduled on her birthday, July 20, 2011. It truly was a day of re-birth, as she “became her donor” over the next 100 days. By that, Brenda explains that her bone marrow had to be stripped of its own DNA markers in order to absorb the new, life-giving bone marrow (like a sponge). During the transplant, the donor’s healthy blood-forming cells were put into Brenda’s bloodstream. These donated cells moved through her bloodstream and settled in the bones, producing new, healthy blood-forming cells.

While the risk of rejection was daunting, Brenda’s body slowly regained strength. In the process of gaining healthy bone marrow, she no longer carried her previous blood type or other familiar genetic markers. She really didn’t know how that would play out. Would she now be allergic to bee stings? Would her taste for certain foods change?

Suddenly, everything was new. Anything was possible.

…. to be continued next week