First Person: It’s the Strangers that Save You

By: Bill Harper

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The author standing at Alki Beach.

The first time I ever got a blood transfusion was seven years ago in a hospital in Dakar, Senegal. The last and 264th time was five years ago, I was at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and I was cancer-free.

In Senegal, I was 20 years old, had a bruise up the length of my upper right arm, and thought the reason why I was so thin, pale, tired, and feverous was that I was a white kid from the Pacific Northwest not genetically equipped for the 120-degree summer heat of the Sahara Desert.

But the blood bags kept coming; another, it seemed, every few hours and many of them filled with some liquid the color of fresh honey and labeled “Plaquettes,” the French word, I would later learn, for “Platelets.” For four days, I received almost-constant blood and platelet transfusions, and nobody told me why. But when a medevac flight took me to a hospital in Nuremberg, Germany and as I passed beneath a sign that read “oncology,” it occurred to me that I never really knew what that word meant. It wouldn’t be long until I found out.

It would take three years, 32 surgeries, chemo, radiation, a stem cell transplant from a young woman from Oklahoma and 264 more blood transfusions to cure me of cancer and clean up the mess it made inside me. My heroes are surgeons, nurses, oncologists, an Oklahoman girl whose love for her brothers motivated her to save my life, and 265 altruistic strangers whose blood kept me alive when my own body turned against me.

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My big sister Erin was weeding her garden in Coupeville, Washington, in early July 2010 when she got the phone call nobody ever sees coming. It was the perfect summer day – the sun was shining, the air was still and her big yellow dog Max was snoozing in some dust next to her.

That phone call was from me. I was in Nuremberg, Germany – somewhere I wasn’t even supposed to be – and I was calling her to tell her I had leukemia.

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Bill standing with a few of things he loves: cars and planes.

It found me in the deserts of West Africa, 9,000 miles away from home in a place where I spent late summer nights under the brightest night sky I’d ever seen listening to Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” on repeat and thinking about a girl I was pretty sure I was in love with. I had been working on a research project for school in Senegal when I started feeling sick.

It all started in a microscopic place in my bone marrow. That’s what the science says, but if you asked me, I’d say it started in the part of my back that I’ve have never really been able to scratch. We’ve always been at odds, that spot and me, and being the place in my body where my cancer began would be a hell of a power play.

You don’t feel it when you get cancer; it doesn’t tap you on the shoulder or put its hand out to for you to shake. And for as momentous of a thing as it is, it comes on with very little fanfare.

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Two weeks after arriving in Dakar, a long, purple and splotchy bruise stretching from my shoulder down to my elbow appeared. How strange, I thought, for extreme heat to cause something like that.

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