A Stranger’s gift: Watsonville girl grateful for bone marrow donor

By Jason Hoppin, Santa Cruz Sentinel, November 29, 2013

A Stranger’s gift: Watsonville girl grateful for bone marrow donor

WATSONVILLE — Elizabeth Bonilla was given the gift of time, so she is sending something back to mark the hours.
The 14-year-old Watsonville girl is still recovering from a cancer diagnosis that came a day after 12th birthday. But she recently spoke for the first time with the stranger that probably saved her life, a 50-year-old San Antonio woman named Hope, and is painting a clock to send as an expression of gratitude.

jacobsheart“She donated to me, and she feels like she’s a part of me,” Bonilla said, recalling a conversation just over a month ago. “My donor calls me her little one. She has no children and she’s not married, so she calls me her little one.”

In summer 2011, Hope signed up for the National Marrow Donor Program. A scant four months later, she turned up as a 99 percent match with Bonilla.

But because Hope had signed up so recently, she was given a chance to back out, Bonilla later learned. She didn’t. The transplant took place in October of that year, just weeks after the diagnosis.

“She wanted to be my present for Christmas,” Bonilla said.

The donor program does not allow donors and patients to connect for at least a year after the procedure, partly to make sure it goes well. But there were complications, and Bonilla became sick again, going in and out of hospitals.

She now goes to once-a-week checkups at Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, and the prognosis is good. Hope, Bonilla and Bonilla’s mother, Ana, recently spoke by phone.
“She was very nervous,” Ana Bonilla said, explaining that the donor was anxious about what had become of the patient she’d donated to.

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“Elizabeth has the strength and the courage and she never gives up. She always has hope,” she explains through a translator, tearing up. “How nice to have the name of the donor be Hope?”
Lori Butterworth started Jacob’s Heart in 1998 to help children with cancer and their families, providing them with essentials such as gas cards or overnight kits for people going through cancer treatment.

“We’ve had 505 children since we started. Can you believe that?” she said, shuffling through photographs of children who’ve come through the program, suggesting a few as mentors.
She urged everyone to sign up as donors, as she has. As Hope did.
“I would love it if someone some day said we need you to donate you bone marrow. I’ve just never been a match,” Butterworth said.

Jacob’s Heart is providing the wooden clock, which Bonilla is painting. When it is done, they plan to send it to the woman in San Antonio who helped save the life of a stranger, a woman named Hope. Someday, Elizabeth Bonilla wants to meet her in person.

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