What would you do if you were asked to save a stranger’s life?
For Wendy Carlyle, her answer was unwavering. “It was never a question for me. Never.”
Though first she had to get beyond the skepticism with which she took the call from Miami in 2008. The person on the other end told Wendy she was a possible match for a bone marrow transplant which could save the life of a man dying of leukemia. “And I was thinking it was a prank phone call, because I had NO recollection of registering. I finally said, I need to see something in writing because I don’t know who you guys are!”
Arriving at her doorstep the very next day, the paperwork refreshed her memory of an event six to seven years earlier. A friend at her synagogue had egged Wendy into giving a swab from her cheek as part of a bone marrow donor registery sponsored by the Gift of Life Foundation.
A lot had happened to Wendy in those intervening years – it’s no wonder she forgot that day. Like having two more babies and her husband Reuven’s announcement in February that he planned to run for the state legislature that November.
Although Reuven had been involved in politics from a young age, it was new turf to Wendy. She soon learned how all-consuming a campaign could be.
“Reuven’s the kind of guy – when he decides something it’s an all or nothing gig. It was a very tough election and he did it all, all the time. He put 100% of his time and effort and everything into the campaign.” Fundraising, sign waving, attending events, and ringing as many doors as possible each night before the sun set – and during the Seattle summer the sun can set as late as 10:00.
Wendy Carlyle, husband Reuven, and their 4 kids in a campaign photo
Their nanny took care of the kids when Dr. Wendy Carlyle was at Virginia Mason Hospital, where she works part-time as an anesthesiologist. “But the nanny really just worked the hours that I worked. So when I came home she left, and it was home from work and Reuven not there and it was all the carpools, all the dinners, all the activities…” Wendy counts off the items with her head turning, as it must have been doing at high speed back then.
“And on top of that, I would have to show up at all these campaign events. When I could I went doorbelling, and on the days I came home from work at a reasonable hour, I’d stand at the corner and wave signs, sometimes with my one year-old.
“That was a hard year,” she says, and then emphasizes, “a super hard year”.
It was into this level of family mayhem that Wendy took that call.
Her skepticism now put to rest, she agreed to take the first step – the initial blood work. Wendy pumped out a few vials to send to the lab to test if her markers aligned with the recipient’s, and learned shortly thereafter that the tubes had broken in transport and she’d need to do it again.
“And then months go by, really. And finally, I get a call back and they say, ‘you’re a perfect match. A 5 out of 5 match for man with leukemia and would I be willing to donate’?
“So my only response was, could it wait? I’m not sure how urgent this is, but if I could wait until after Election Day it would be easier.”
Reuven Carlyle got elected to the Washington State Legislature on Tuesday November 4, 2008, and the following Monday, Wendy checked into the University of Washington Medical Center to donate her bone marrow for a total stranger. (below: Wendy and 2 year old Nava t Mount Rainier)
But before the actual donation – and squeezed into the busy campaign season – Wendy was fully evaluated, both physically and psychologically. There were many hours spent, for an EKG, chest x-rays, blood work and a total physical exam. All to make sure there was no hidden medical condition that could put her at risk. The psychological exam was done to determine that there was no coercion, no money being passed under the table. “They close the doors and say look, you know you really don’t have to.
“People I talked to would say they would never do it, but for me, there was never, never, an inkling of hesitation. When I got the phone call that said I was an exact match I was just overwhelmed with the opportunity to potentially save somebody’s life.”
Sitting with Wendy two years later at our outdoor café table, I see the emotion of that moment in her eyes. It has the look of someone overwhelmed by the generosity of a tribute or a gift. It is the emotion of gratitude mixed with humility. The feeling of someone deeply touched who doesn’t feel herself worthy of the recognition.
“It was an amazing experience, an amazing opportunity to save someone’s life. I mean, I’ve given birth, I’ve given life. I have four children, but it really is nothing like this. And it’s all anonymous, which makes it even more special,” says Wendy, pausing a moment to compose herself. “Because you’re doing it not out of personal love for somebody or family obligation, like if your brother needs a kidney and there’s all that emotional stuff that comes with that. But I have no idea of who this person is.”
Wendy knew only that the recipient was a 46 year-old man with leukemia who weighed twice as much as she did. Given that he was so large, they had to take the absolute maximum amount of bone marrow from her that would be safe. Even that was just the minimal amount that would be acceptable to him.
Bone marrow donation can be done in one of two ways, either through a surgical procedure where needles withdraw liquid marrow from the back of the pelvic bone; or through a non-surgical procedure where the donor receives daily injections of a drug that increases the number of blood forming cells in the bloodstream which are then separated out through a machine like that which is used for dialysis.
Wendy didn’t want to go through the medication, so she chose to have the marrow extracted surgically.
“The day of the donation was so exciting, it was just so exciting.” The nanny took the kids to school while Reuven and Wendy went to the hospital where they were met by a representative from Gift of Life, who had flown out from Florida to be with them.
With her share of experience in the operating room, Dr. Wendy Carlyle wasn’t too concerned about the procedure itself. “But it was a big blood loss because they had to take so much. I was severely anemic and dehydrated. My only concern in the recovery room -- I was just weeping because I was so hoping that it would work for this person. I knew I’d be ok. I did what I could and now it was out of my hands and I was so overwhelmed with emotion for him.”
Wendy knows her recipient survived his first year, at which point communication cuts off unless he chooses to initiate contact. She would like to know how he’s doing but she’s fine with giving him the choice to contact her or not.
The year after her donation Gift of Life sent Wendy two tickets to their annual fundraising event in New York. “I took my oldest daughter and it was an AMAZING evening. They introduced three sets of donors and recipients who met on stage for the first time. There are tissues on every table because there is not a dry eye in the place. Everybody made such a big deal about the donors, but the way I look at it, for the donors, the procedure is an inconvenience, but it’s not life threatening. I think the real heroes are the recipients who have made it through this amazing medical procedure.”
Gift of Life is a Jewish bone marrow registry, recognizing that ethnic groups have a higher chance of having bone marrow similarities. A visit to their web site introduces one to a Rabbi who reminds us that “this is an intrinsic Jewish value to share the gift of life.” (For another amazingly inspirational story about the importance of ethnic bone marrow registries, listen to or read this story on NPR about a Nigerian Olympic hopeful and graduate of Yale Law School who started a registry to help people of African descent after he was diagnosed with leukemia).
This year, Wendy’s chance to connect with her Jewish heritage was a spiritual rather than physical one. Her eldest daughter, Adi, had her Bat Mitzvah and in celebration, Wendy and Reuven took her and her sister Liat to Israel.
“The girls really got the connection between the Jewish history and the Jewish present and the fight for the Jewish future.”
Adi, Liat and Wendy in Jerusalem
As for the Bat Mitzvah? “It was really the first moment when it felt like I was passing the baton. It’s not any more about me and my generation – it’s the moment where you see that this is the future. I don’t think I expected that.”
It’s a theme that underscores our entire interview – Dr. Wendy Carlyle, passing on her love, nurturance, spirituality, life, to those she knows and loves, and even to those she doesn’t.
- Janet Pelz
Wendy Carlyle’s Not-So-Secrets for How She Does It?
- I think I keep everything in perspective. I really don’t get rattled or worked up about a whole lot of things. Part of that comes from the job that I have where I see real emergencies, people with real illnesses and real crises, so it’s hard to get worked up about my situation.
- If you’re a little late, so what? Everyone’s going to eat, no one’s starving here, they’ll all get to sleep. I just try to not sweat the small stuff. And I have good kids, who are pretty independent, and they’re all used to being in a very busy household.
- I exercise almost everyday. I run, I ride my bike to work. I take aerobics classes at the health club. I see friends when I can.
- Wendy places tremendous value in her community of friends. After the bone marrow donation, “I was blown away by my friends who dropped off meals, came and helped with the kids – the support from my community was amazing. Really, it takes a village. I could not have done it without that support for sure.”
Whom Does Wendy want me to interview next?
- In my own circle of friends, they’re all amazing, but you should interview Carol Wiley Cassella, who just published the novel Oxygen (click the Amazon ad on this page to order it and to support the blog!) She has two sets of twins that were born 15 months apart; she’s double-Boarded in internal medicine and anesthesiology. I don’t consider myself amazing. I’m just a regular person, but she’s amazing.
What books has Wendy read recently?
- Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Stieg Larsson. “Fabulous!” (click the Amazon ad on this page to order it and to support the blog!)