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01/25/07 20:00:20 - Donor Part IIThe Evangelist, the official publication of the Catholic Diocese of Albany. It is reprinted with their permission and I would like to thank them personally for it.
As I said before, the original can be found here
Priest gives marrow to save boy's life
Anonymous donation leaves child alive and clergyman changed
BY KAREN DIETLEIN OSBORNE
Rev. George Fleming describes 1987 as his "idealistic" year. It was the year he decided to become a priest. It was also when he put himself on a list of potential bone-marrow donors for the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), inspired by the thought that he could help somebody overcome a potentially fatal disease.
"Back then, something was calling me to serve. I went out of my way to get on the registry," explained Father Fleming, the newly appointed pastor at St. Bonaventure parish in Speigletown. Because he never received a call, "I didn't figure I was a match."
Then, 18 years later, the call came "out of the blue," he said.
Boy in need
The request, which arrived last spring, identified Father Fleming's match as a five-year-old boy suffering from combined immunodeficiency, a genetic disease that affects the ability of white blood cells to protect the body from infection and disease.
Once a fatal condition, it can now be treated by a bone-marrow transplant from a matching donor. If not treated, many patients die before their second birthday.
Because the donation program is anonymous, Father Fleming received very little information about the boy, only that it was an either/or situation: Either the boy took to a transplant, or he would not survive.
Giving of self
The operation, postponed a number of times, was finally scheduled for mid-October. Doctors use a hollow needle to withdraw marrow from the pelvic bone of the donor. The donor experiences some discomfort and side-effects but is usually back to work within a few days, said Father Fleming.
The donated marrow is given to the recipient through transfusion, and the new marrow replaces the old, producing blood unaffected by disease.
According to officials at the Rochester donor center of the NMDP, the boy who got Father Fleming's marrow is doing fine as of their last update in November.
Before the operation, the priest informed parishioners in the Northern Points Cluster, where he was then pastor, about what he was going to do and asked them to pray for the boy.
"It was a relatively simple procedure for me," said Father Fleming. "It was exciting. It was tense. In many ways, I was nervous and scared."
By the time he awoke from anesthesia, his marrow was already on a flight to the hospital where the boy was located.
"He was operated on the same day," the priest said. "I was amazed at all the work that went into this. The nurses and doctors in Syracuse were all Catholic, and I was really struck by the way they were praying with me as I went in. While this was a major operation for the boy, it was very minor for me."
Being a part of this experience has changed the priest. "It makes me very sensitive to what [patients] are going through," Father Fleming explained.
While recovery was relatively easy -- "I chalked it up to prayer and painkillers," he joked -- he's still ruminating about the impact of the procedure on himself and the unnamed family.
For example, while officiating at a wedding the following weekend, Father Fleming began to think about the parallels between marrow donation and what he does as a priest.
"It spiritually has connected me more with the Eucharist," he said. "They were literally taking my body and blood, and transforming someone else with it. This person has a new life and even a new blood type. How much does the Eucharist change us because of Jesus' body and blood?"
Meaning of donation
Father Fleming calls the donation "a meaningful experience and a reminder that we all give life in different ways."
He also sees his choice as consonant with the Church's stance on science, technology and life.
"I felt it was a privilege for someone who believes what the Church believes about embryonic stem-cell research to stand up for the Church's beliefs instead of just talking about it," he said. "The Catholic faith promotes social responsibility, working with science for the betterment of people. I feel, as a priest, I have an obligation to help where I could. I was representing the Church as well as myself."
In a year, the donor registry will give the family of the boy and Father Fleming the option of contacting each other. Both parties would have to agree for that to happen.
Father Fleming is beginning to realize how faith has entered into the picture for him -- and he can't help but wonder if and how it does for the boy and his family.
"I am wondering, nine months from now, when they find out I'm a priest, how they will feel," he said. "Hopefully, it is a reminder that Catholics care."
(For information, contact the National Marrow Donor Program at 800-627-7692, or visit www.marrow.org.)
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Aren is undergoing a bone marrow transplant to fix the immune system defects that caused the loss of his little sister, Lily. To learn more, click here.
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