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Stella Lee Leong

Ron Balbuena

Ron Balbuena

Date Donated: September 11, 1997 

I've Always Wanted to be a Hero.

At least make a difference in someone's life, however significant.

This is why I registered to be a bone marrow donor in October 1994 when I was a sophomore at the University if California, Berkeley. Just as I was coming out of a chemistry lecture, I saw a sign at the student union pointing towards where one can register to be a potential bone marrow donor.

I didn't know there was going to be a bone marrow drive that day. It's not like there was someone who appealed to me to help a friend or relative who was stricken with leukemia and who needed a marrow transplant desperately. I didn't even know what the process of donating marrow entailed.

All I knew about bone marrow donation was that by registering, I could have a chance, however small, to one day save another person's life, to be a hero.

I also knew that I had time to register. It only took 15 minutes. I filled a health consent form and gave a tablespoon of blood for testing. After that, I had some juice, left the registration area and continued to live my life as a college student. I didn't expect to ever get a call to be a marrow donor. The chances are so slim, right?

That's what I thought.

Let's fast forward to May 1997. I was about to finish college, only a few more finals plus a summer class, and I'm out of there! I come home to my apartment and hit the answering machine to listen to my messages. One of them was from a lady whom I never met, Anne Brewster from the Blood Bank of Alameda & Contra Consta Counties. I don't remember exactly what she said, but I got the gist of it: YOU ARE A POSSIBLE MARROW MATCH FOR AN 8-YEAR-OLD BOY WITH LEUKEMIA.

Shock. Wonder. Excitement. My feelings in so many words. I felt better than winning the lottery. This message is like someone telling you that we've found your purpose in this world. People often wonder what the meaning of life is, what is our raison d'etre? My answer came from a child whom I've never met.

I called up Anne. She was glad to hear me respond since it can be difficult to track down donors years after registration. I was instructed to come in for a confirmatory blood test and a physical. The blood test was to ensure that my tissue type was the best match possible for this boy. The physical was to ensure that donating bone marrow is not a risky procedure for me.

About a month and a half later, Anne told me that I was set to go: my tissue type was close enough to the patient's and my health was not a concern for marrow donation.

I went through an informational session so I knew everything that would happen to me. They showed me a 15-minute video. The procedure involved a surgical needle going through the rear of my pelvic bone from which 5% of my total marrow would be aspirated. The marrow will regenerate within 4 to 6 weeks.

Would I feel anything? I will be under general anesthesia, so I wouldn't feel the aspiration of my marrow. When I wake up, I'll feel soreness on my lower back for sure.

Would this cost anything? The patient's insurance covers this procedure. I wouldn't pay a dime nor would I receive anything. Fine by me.

How long would I be in the hospital? It should be an outpatient procedure depending if we can get this done early in the morning. Any later, we may ask you to stay over one night as a precaution.

How is the boy? All they could tell me was that he was 8 years old. Everything would be confidential for at least a year. Bummer.

Okay, I was set. All my questions were answered. I set the date of the donation to be September 11, 1997. The morning of that date (5:00am to be precise), I arrived at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley. At around 6:00am, I was dressed up in a surgical gown. A half hour later, the nurse administered general anesthesia through my veins. She said it would feel like a "warm gatorade".

Next thing I know, it's 8:00am and I'm in the recovery room! I've never been knocked out before. It's a surreal feeling to lose time just like that. But that's exactly what happened. I lost time.

A minute later, I feel the soreness that everyone's been telling me about. It's a pressure feeling more than soreness. It's kind of like a bruise on your lower back. When you anticipate what the soreness will be like, it's easier to take. Whatever discomfort I may have felt was worth it, however. The boy and his family went through a lot worse!

I left the hospital around 2:00pm and went home to sleep the rest of the day. The next two days were Saturday and Sunday, and I took it easy for the most part. I could get up, take a shower, walk to the kitchen to make breakfast, and be a couch potato the rest of the time. The only thing I couldn't do was run and lift heavy objects. A small sacrifice indeed!

Honestly, I felt kind of let down. When I left the hospital, I didn't feel like a hero. I just went in and the doctors did all the work. But a couple of weeks later, I received a card from the boy:

    "To Someone Special:

    Zillion thank you for your bone marrow. We could not find words to appropriately reflect our appreciation for such a gift. The fact is ...

    Worldwide, there were at least six million registered donors and you being the best suitable one for my son is a miracle!!

    As the song goes, "ONE IN A MILLION" But for you "It's ONE IN THE MILLIONS"

    Thank you very very ... much and it is our dream to stay in touch with you and possibly meeting you when the time is right.

    Received your card on the 24-9-97 Thank you very much


    The most grateful family,


Only when I received this card did I know that what I did was real - that there is someone out there in this world who is alive because of me. It's a feeling that I will always treasure the rest of my life.

I still haven't met the boy yet. I don't know if I'll ever meet him. I know I'll give him the biggest hug of my life when that day comes. It turns out he's not from the U.S., but from Europe. I picture this 11-year-old boy playing with his school friends, oblivious to the leukemia that he endured years before, only looking forward to the endless possibilities of the future. And as much as I have made it possible for him to have a future to look forward to, I know that he has given equally as much to me - he has given my life a purpose, a direction, a raison d'etre.


- Ron Balbuena, 2000
Former Recruitment Specialist of A3M

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