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November 29, 2002

Bone marrow builds a bridge across continents

From: Sacramento Bee, CA - 29 Nov 2002

By Marijke Rowland -- Modesto Bee
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Friday, November 29, 2002
MODESTO -- Certain things simply cross all borders. Like love and faith and blood. Or, more to the point, bone marrow.

When Sonora resident Mary Medeiros donated her bone marrow to an anonymous recipient nearly four years ago, she never dreamed it would cross oceans and continents to find a new home.

"I kept thinking it would stay in California, maybe go to Sacramento or something," said the Ceres High School math teacher. "It wasn't until after my procedure that they told me it went to Europe."

Her bone marrow, able to churn out healthy blood cells, took the place of a young Italian woman's diseased marrow.

Twenty-four hours after her procedure, Mary's marrow arrived in Italy, with a note tucked inside the ice chest from her that read simply: "Good luck. I'm thinking of you."

That note and Mary's gift began a journey that would again cross oceans and continents. For Thanksgiving, donor and recipient are together sharing meals, stories and thanks.

"It was never an anonymous event to me," Mary said, recalling the procedure. "I just knew there was a person and a family waiting for this."

On Dec. 18, 1998, Marina Cappi received Mary's bone marrow. The now 31-year-old and her family live in Modena, a town roughly the size of Modesto, in northern Italy near Bologna. At age 20, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Her relatives tested as donors, but none was compatible. Seven years passed while Marina took heavy medication to combat her illness. She endured 24 near-matches before she found the right one -- Mary.

Immediately after her surgery, Marina knew she wanted to meet her donor. At the time, Italian law dictated a three-year waiting period between revealing recipient and donor information.

"I didn't know peace without knowing her," Marina said. "After seven years, I was given a new life. I wanted to say 'thank you' personally."

Marina's procedure to infuse Mary's bone marrow lasted 12 hours. Two weeks passed before it started pumping out healthy cells. Three months later, she left the hospital. After a year, she was off anti-rejection medication.

During this period, Mary and Marina -- who didn't know each other's names -- were exchanging letters and cards. The notes went through the donor agency and had all identifying information blacked out. Then, while they were counting down to the end of their waiting period, Italian law changed to prohibit donors and recipients from ever meeting.

That started the two women on separate letter-writing campaigns -- Mary to everyone from Oprah Winfrey to first lady Laura Bush, and Marina to the Italian equivalent of Oprah and government officials. They pleaded for a chance to know each other.

In August, the Italian government relented and grandfathered in Mary and Marina's situation.

"We're both Capricorns," Mary said. "We are both very stubborn. She was very determined to find me and I was to find her."

Soon after learning each other's names, a trip was planned. Marina, who also is deaf, brought five members of her family to California: her older sister Renata Cappi, who also serves as translator, her brother-in-law Carlo Filippi, parents Piero and Giuliana Cappi, and fiance Cristiano Cappi, who shares his wife-to-be's maiden name.

They arrived in San Francisco on Sunday night. Mary greeted them at the airport with a welcome sign written in Italian. She had been listening to Italian CDs in her car during her one-hour commute to school each day.

"It was four years of waiting in one second of emotion," Mary said.

The family wasn't sure if Mary would be waiting.

"We went to the baggage claim and saw her and, oh, it was big emotion," Renata said. "It is impossible to say in words."

So far, Mary, Marina and her family have been seeing the sights -- San Francisco, Oakdale, the foothills -- but mostly talking.

"After 48 hours it felt like we had known each other for 10 years," Mary said.

Renata said besides marrow, Marina has developed some other interesting resemblances to Mary. Her blood type has changed from A-positive to Mary's AB. Her hair also has turned curly -- something Mary attributes to her Portuguese roots -- and she tastes certain foods differently. Renata said the changes are caused by Mary's bone marrow working in Marina's body.

"Now, Marina is more Mary's sister than mine. I have no sister," she joked.

Mary plans to visit Italy next summer. For now, more than 40 members of her family celebrated Thanksgiving in her Sonora home. Renata said this is her family's first Thanksgiving. But they already celebrate their own thanksgiving each year, on Dec. 18, the anniversary of Marina's transfusion.

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