From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

The Letter

To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.

Phyllis Theroux

I sat at my dining-room table, signing my name to the most difficult letter I’d ever penned. The letter was to my son Luke’s birth mom. This was not the first time I had reached out to the woman whose name I didn’t know. I’d sent several letters over the years with photos of Luke, which the adoption agency had agreed to forward, but had never received a single reply. I didn’t know if Luke’s birth mom had even received my letters.

Please read this letter, I prayed as I folded the paper and slipped it into its envelope. Luke’s life may depend on it.

With four teenagers of our own, my husband Mark and I still felt we had more love to give. And so we adopted Luke, now six.

When Luke was one year old the pediatrician ran a routine blood test: “Your son has sickle-cell disease,” the doctor grimly informed us.

“People die from that!” I gasped.

A gene inherited from both of his birth parents had caused Luke to be born with defective red blood cells, the doctor explained.

“As he grows older Luke will probably suffer anemia and extremely painful swelling in his joints,” the doctor said. “But we can give Luke monthly transfusions of healthy blood to help keep up his strength.”

I thanked God for every healthy day Luke enjoyed. But when Luke was three, he caught a cold and was having trouble breathing. We admitted Luke to the hospital immediately for IV antibiotics.

Luke had acute chest syndrome. Large clumps of sickle-shaped red blood cells were clogging the vessels in his lungs. The blockage was preventing Luke’s blood from getting enough oxygen. This caused further sickling, which led to even more blockage in a vicious cycle that was spiraling dangerously out of control.

I held Luke’s tiny hand while a heart-lung bypass machine struggled to raise his blood-oxygen levels.

Finally, Luke began to rally.

“Luke has been through quite an ordeal, but he is feeling much better now,” I wrote to my son’s birth mom, who, I had learned from the adoption agency, was a single mother of three with little money, struggling to finish her education.

After his crisis Luke’s doctor increased his transfusions from monthly to every third week, but this only forestalled the inevitable. Soon Luke was back in the hospital, fighting once again for his life.

Luke recovered from the second crisis, but I knew it was only a matter of time before my son succumbed to his illness. “Isn’t there anything more we can do?” I begged the doctors.

Then Luke’s hematologist related some exciting news. “There’s a chance Luke’s sickle-cell disease could be cured with a bone-marrow transplant,” he told us. “The new marrow would produce healthy blood cells that wouldn’t carry the sickle-cell disease.”

My heart soared, but it landed with a thud when the doctor inquired, “Do you know if Luke has any siblings?” To perform a transplant, they would have to locate a matching donor. “A blood brother or sister would offer the best hope for a successful antigen match,” the doctor explained.

I anguished over what to do. “Do I even have the right to ask Luke’s birth mother for help?” I asked an adoption agency counselor.

“Luke is your child. You have a right to do whatever it takes to save his life,” the counselor replied without hesitation.

And so I penned a letter describing the situation to Luke’s birth mom. “Would you consider having your other children tested as possible marrow donors?” I wrote. I dropped the letter into the mailbox and then waited and prayed.

Two weeks later the hematologist called. “Luke’s birth mom had her children tested, and I just got the results from her doctor,” he said, excited. “One of them is a 100 percent match, and he can’t wait to become his brother’s marrow donor.”

“She brought him into this world, and now he’ll have a second chance to live a long and happy life,” I told Mark.

The cutting-edge transplant was performed at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. Luke received eight days of strong chemotherapy to kill off his diseased bone marrow. Meanwhile, many hundreds of miles away, one of Luke’s older brothers visited a local hospital where doctors extracted a few ounces of his healthy bone marrow. The precious cargo was rushed to Michigan, where the doctor used a simple IV line to infuse the life-giving marrow cells into Luke’s bloodstream.

Within weeks, tests revealed that Luke’s new bone marrow was taking hold and already producing healthy red blood cells. Two weeks later Luke was ready to go home, his sickle-cell disease gone forever.

In a letter I shared the happy news with Luke’s birth mom, who this time wrote back:

“I’ve written many letters but never had the courage to mail them. Many times I’ve felt like I did the wrong thing, but now I know it was right. I never could have given Luke the medical attention he needed. Now I know he’s right where God needed him to be. Luke has two families who love him. He’s a very lucky little boy.”

I think I’m the lucky one. I get to watch Luke grow up healthy and strong.

Julane DeBoer
As told to Bill Holton
Previously appeared in Woman’s World

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