Parker’s Legacy: The Gift of Hope – Catherine A. Sanderson (Words for the Journey March 2017)

Parker’s Legacy: The Gift of Hope

March 2017  |  by Catherine A. Sanderson

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been terrified of needles, blood and hospitals.  As a high school student, I fainted in the pediatrician’s office while having a blood test for mono.  During my first pregnancy, I refused to consider having an epidural during labor, not out of a strong tolerance for pain, but out of fear of a needle in my back.  I’ve never donated blood. 

Yet I spent October 22, 2015 at the Dartmouth Medical Center donating bone marrow to a stranger.  And this was one of the most meaningful days of my life, and an experience that I look back on frequently – and share regularly with others (as I’m doing now). 

So, what led me to that day, and that (unlikely) choice?

It all started with a little boy named Parker, who was diagnosed with leukemia when he was only three years old.  That little boy was the son of my Screen Shot 2017-03-01 at 10.53.27 AMhusband’s cousin, and the same age as my son Robert.  Sadly, on December 20, 2009, Parker died.  He was eight years old.

Following his death, Parker’s mom Sarah urged family and friends to sign up for the bone marrow registry, noting that a successful bone marrow transmission could potentially have saved his life.  I promptly signed up for the Be the Match registry – which simply involved taking a check swab at home and mailing it back in – and then, just as promptly, forgot all about it. 

Fast forward to September 2015, when I received a phone call that I was a genetic match to critically ill woman.  Would I be willing to donate bone marrow? 

My response was immediate:  of course.  I thought of Parker, and how much he deserved more time.  I thought of my mother, who died of cancer at age 57, and how I would have given anything to have had more time with her.  The decision was easy. 

Over the next month, I underwent various medical tests (including multiple blood tests), and received injections of a drug to stimulate stem cell growth.  Then, I checked into the hospital early one morning, and spent the day undergoing the procedure.  That night, I left the hospital with tears in my eyes; I hoped so much that my donation would help give someone more time with their family.  And I can’t think of anything that has brought more meaning to my life. 

Every six months or so, my phone rings and I recognize the Be The Match phone number.  My heart beats rapidly every time they call, which is usually to give me an update.  So far, the news has all been good:  the recipient is currently in full remission (18 months as of now).  But I know she was critically ill when she received the donation, and I know the news may not always be good;  it may someday be really sad.   Screen Shot 2017-03-01 at 10.53.38 AM

But when I mentioned my fear about someday receiving bad news to Parker’s mom, Sarah, she pointed out that regardless of what happens, what I’ve done has given this woman’s family hope. And that hope is a wonderful gift. 

The sad irony is that the most meaningful day of my life was brought about by a terrible tragedy – the loss of a young boy who very much deserved to live.  But Sarah’s choice, to ask people to sign up to donate bone marrow in Parker’s honor, is a vivid example of how we can find meaning, in virtually all circumstances.

As Sheryl Sandberg noted following the sudden death of her 47-year-old husband, “When tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.”

And as I’ll talk about later this month, one of the essentials keys to the Science of Happiness, is finding your meaning, even in the face of tremendous loss.    

Catherine A. Sanderson, PhD., with degrees from both Stanford and Princeton, is now the Manwell Professor of Life Sciences (Psychology) at Amherst College and ranked as one of the country’s top 300 professors by the Princeton Review. She is among the most popular teachers at Amherst – her classes fill rapidly and many former students invite her to their weddings. Sanderson wants to help put happiness within reach of her audiences and in so doing, make herself happier. It is her consuming passion. Its tenets help define how she lives her own life, and she welcomes others to follow her lead.


  1. Sarah Jane Brown says

    This is absolutely beautiful!! Even if the donor gave the recipient one more day…. That is one more day of a possible memory made. And memories are all I have left of my son Parker. They will be etched in my own memory the rest of my years.

  2. Richard Dalke says

    Great article Catherine! As one of Parker’s grandfathers (he called me ‘Papa Richard’), I very much appreciate your life-giving gift of bone marrow that both honors the special person that Parker was as well as enriching the life of the recipient.

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