Gross gave the gift of life

April 05, 1998|By TERRY TALBERT

by Kevin G. Gilbert / staff photographer

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Navy Petty Officer Austin Gross spent last Labor Day weekend celebrating life, but it was no picnic.

A Navy recruiter in Hagerstown, Gross spent the holiday in Georgetown University Hospital, where doctors harvested bone marrow from his pelvis during a three-hour procedure.

Tests indicated that Gross' marrow was the most suitable match for a leukemia patient who needed it to survive.

Gross, 31, signed up for the national bone marrow registry while he was stationed on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in Norfolk.


"I happened to be on the mess deck when I saw the Red Cross was there. They said they were signing up people for the national bone marrow registry. I signed up, and they took a blood sample," he said.

"I believe the fact I came across the mess deck when I did was not by chance. I believe God put me there," Gross said.

Before long, he got a call from the bone marrow center asking him if he would take further tests. Last August, he got the news that his marrow was a match for a person in need of a marrow transplant.

It was time to commit.

"They ask you to sign a contract. It's not a legal contract, but more of a moral thing," Gross said.

"Two weeks before the harvest, they have to basically destroy the immune system of the recipient to prepare him for the transplant. If you back out then, the person dies."

Gross was excited about his chance to give the gift of life when he went to the donor center at Georgetown. He also was apprehensive. He had heard the marrow collection procedure was painful. "Was I scared? Yes," Gross said.

With Gross under general anesthesia, doctors inserted hollow needles into the sponge-like interior of the pelvic bone to collect the marrow. The amount harvested depends on the condition and size of the recipient.

He gave about twice as much as the average donor. Doctors used eight main injections, four in each hip, to collect 800 samples of marrow, he said.

"Afterward, it wasn't bad at all," Gross said. "It was like if you went to the gym and worked out, and had some stiffness in your back."

Gross and the leukemia patient he helped asked for permission to exchange letters. According to policy, donor and recipient must remain anonymous for a year after the transplant, at which time they can exchange names and addresses. Until then, the donor centers forward the letters.

On Sept. 9, 1997, the man who got Gross' marrow wrote him. "Dear Donor, today is the 11th day since my transplant and all is going fine," the letter began. " ... I'm so glad I was given this opportunity. It takes such a special person to do what you have done for me."

From his letters, Gross knows the recipient is 33 years old, has a 6-year-old son and is engaged to be married. He was 32 when he was diagnosed with leukemia in July 1996. His body has not rejected Gross' marrow, and he's returned to work.

Gross and he and his marrow recipient are waiting for the day they can learn each other's names, and meet. That day will be Aug. 29.

"I feel we're one. I feel I'm part of him," Gross said. "I'm so curious. I don't know where he lives. When I was at the hospital, every time I saw a sick person, I thought 'I wonder if that's him.'"

A born-again Christian who once was down and out, Gross is organizing a marrow donor registration drive for military personnel.

Would Gross give again?

In a heartbeat.

"I've received far more than I've given," he said.

Gross said being a marrow donor and reading his recipient's letters have changed his life.

"It's taught me to take each day as it comes, because there might not be a tomorrow," he said. "I have a 13-year-old daughter Typhanie and a 4-year-old son Seth. The other day my son came to me and said, 'I didn't get a chance to kiss Mommy goodbye this morning.' It reminds you to take the extra time to do the little things. It reminds you not to take good morning and evening kisses for granted."

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