Before undergoing bone marrow harvesting surgery in May 2011, Maxine Renning only knew that she would be saving a 26-year-old woman’s life. Today, Renning can say that she and the recipient of her bone marrow, Jenna Langer, now 27, are as close as sisters.
Though the two have communicated through Skype and texts since getting each other’s contact information this past May, Renning and Langer met for the first time a few weeks ago at the annual gathering of the Be The Match Foundation, an organization that helps find donors for bone marrow and umbilical cord blood, in Minneapolis. Renning described meeting Langer as a surreal experience, while Langer said that meeting the person who saved her life was overwhelming.
“Now I have her DNA,” Langer said, “and I have her actual blood that’s my blood now, so meeting her just felt really familiar. I was so curious to know who she was, and I was so grateful, and I just wanted to be able to express my gratitude to her. My family really wanted to express their gratitude, too.”
Langer explained that this appreciation stemmed from the relief that she and her family felt when Renning was found as a perfect match. Langer had survived cancer three times prior to developing preleukemia, and a bone marrow transplant was her final option.
Langer said the process of finding and recieving a match as one that felt completely out of her hands. Before the transplant, the majority of Langer’s own bone marrow had to be destroyed to make room for the new. Renning’s healthy, blood-forming cells were then put into Langer’s bloodstream, where they eventually multiplied.
Back in July of 2010, at a blood drive in her hometown of Lincoln, Rhode Island, Renning was asked to join the Be the Match Registry for bone marrow donation. Renning was hesitant because of rumors of the excruciating pain that comes with donation, but she was told that 76 percent of bone marrow can be donated through stem cells from blood, while only 24 percent is harvested from the actual bone – so she signed up.
She was contacted six months later and told she had a match, which, according to Renning, is a remarkably short amount of time. Renning was a 10/10 perfect match for Langer, meaning that their human leukocyte antigen tissue types were identical. These tissues are proteins the immune system uses to recognize which cells belong in your body and which do not, according to the National Marrow Donor Program’s website.
Renning was also told that she would be a part of the 24 percent of donors who go through the harvest process, meaning that during the procedure, liquid bone marrow would be extracted from her pelvis with a needle. Although she knew it would be painful, Renning said her willingness to help ultimately outweighed her fear.
“Yes, it was painful, but I was completely under,” Renning said. “It’s a temporary pain to save someone’s life and, to me, it was worth it.”
Now, 1 1/2 years after the donation, Langer said that the two will be friends for a very long time, bound not only by blood type but through a strong bond. Langer explained that she no longer feels the need to express her gratitude daily to Renning, for their friendship has grown past the initial relationship that exists between a donor and recipient.
“It’s fun,” Langer said. “It’s another friend, and it’s a great friend that I know I’m going to have a connection to my whole life. She texts me stupid things, and I text her stupid things back. We’re already at this point where we can just enjoy the success.”
For Renning, who initially went to the blood drive on a whim, she said that she felt that the donation and the resulting friendship with Langer was meant to be.
“For some reason, when I signed up, I had this funny feeling that I would be a match some day,” she said.
According to Langer, she now not only has a lifelong friend, but a second chance.
“[When you’re waiting for a match], your life is in somebody else’s hands,” Langer said. “Your disease is progressing, too, and every day matters. Every day I had to wait for a match, my disease was getting worse. When I found out that I had a match – and I actually had a perfect match – it meant a shot at life.”