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Marrow transplant links 2 lives

November 08, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Austin Gross saved a stranger's life last year by donating his bone marrow.

But the hard part wasn't undergoing the four-hour operation, he said. It was waiting to find out who the mystery leukemia patient was.

"It drove me nuts," said Gross, a Navy recruiter who lives in Hagerstown. "I guess it's sort of like a kid at Christmas, counting down the days. And I did."

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The national bone marrow registry keeps donors and recipients anonymous for a year. So Gross, 31, had to wait until Aug. 29 to find out who his recipient was. During the interim, he said he repeatedly begged his sponsor to slip him a few hints.

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Anonymity did not prevent communication, however. Gross said he and his recipient exchanged about 15 letters each. The donor organizations forwarded the letters, which began "Dear Donor" and "Dear Recipient."

"I got letters from him. I got letters from his sister," he said. "I tried to write at least once a month."

From the letters, Gross said he learned that the recipient was 33 years old, had a son and a girlfriend, and worked as a roofer. After an agonizing year, he finally got a name: Michael Gamble.

Last month, Gross got a chance to visit him for the first time. He said Gamble invited him to spend a week on Mackinac Island in Michigan.

During the flight, Gross said he tried to imagine how he would react to seeing Gamble for the first time.

"It was real emotional," he said. "When it really hit home was when I met his son."

He said they picked up Michael Jr., 7, at school. Gross said the experience made him think of his own children, a 4-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter.

On the island, which has no cars, Gross said he went horseback riding, rode bicycles and saw the famous Grand Hotel, where the movie "Somewhere in Time" was filmed.

The relationship between Gross and Gamble was an unlikely pairing. Gross said he was stationed on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington when a Red Cross official signed him up as a bone marrow donor.

Since matches are so rare, many potential donors spend years on the national registry without ever finding a match, Gross said. But he got a call within five months.

Gamble's family members were tested. Two sisters matched each other but not him, and his other sister and brother were not a match, either.

So officials began searching for potential donors on the bone marrow list. Thirty possible matches emerged, but after further testing, Gross said the first 29 did not work out.

Gamble had been sick for more than a year since being diagnosed with leukemia, Gross said.

"He was really sick he said he was extremely tired all the time," Gross said.

Gross said he understood that Gamble probably would have died had he not been a match.

"It was very rewarding, not that I wanted myself to be puffed up. But it was so incredible," he said. "It's really not anything you can explain."

The operation itself was not nearly as painful as he had heard, Gross said.

Gamble had to do the hard part, undergoing radical chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Gross said.

For his part, Gross said he was unconscious during the operation, in which eight injections were made into his pelvis. In each injection, doctors made 100 punctures suctioning out the life-saving bone marrow.

When he woke up, Gross said he was sore in the lower back for about a week and was tired for about a month.

It was a small price to pay to save someone's life, said Gross, who led a bone marrow drive in his office building earlier this year that signed up 14 people as potential donors.

And he has a friend for life.

Actually, a little more than that, he said.

"They accepted me as their own," Gross said. "They said, 'You're just like our brother.'"

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