May 6, 2015

​Transplanted and Transformed

It was a Thursday in 2010. I was home making lunch and thinking about the strange, turbulent week unfolding. My birthday was a day away, but the celebration of a new year of life was overshadowed by tragedy.

On Monday a family friend died of cancer, just one month after the diagnosis was made. On Tuesday an earthquake struck the island of Haiti, and day after day, stories of unimaginable suffering poured through the media. Stirring the pot, I thought sadly about the events of the week. Suddenly my cell phone rang. It was my brother.

The Story Begins


It’s a strange and meaningless word to many who hear it. But to a young couple in a doctor’s office in Ghana, West Africa, that word explained why their daughter went from normal to sickly just a few months after her birth. It explained the frequent fevers, swollen wrists and ankles, and difficulty sleeping. My parents learned they were both carriers of sickle-cell anemia—a genetic blood disorder—and I had the disease. Not wanting to risk bringing another sick child into the world, they decided they would not have any more children. But a year and a half after my birth, my brother Kwasi was born healthy.

My family moved from Ghana to North America when I was 5. Late one evening, following a bout of illness, I started shaking uncontrollably, then suddenly fainted. My parents, alarmed, rushed me to the hospital, where tests were taken. The results came back. Normal hemoglobin levels are between 11 and 13: mine had dropped to 2.

Doctors, not understanding what was wrong, ordered a spinal tap. As my parents looked on in horror, a large needle was inserted into my spine, and my cries filled the room. But there was no infection. Instead, I was experiencing my first major
sickle-cell crisis.

A Chance Meeting

When you grow up with sickle cell, pain, hospital visits, blood transfusions, and medications are part of life. That life, haunted by the knowledge that I could die at any time, seemed an unchangeable reality.

In 2008 I graduated from law school, then prepared for and took the bar exam. Unfortunately, the stress and pressure of exam preparation caused my illness to flare. I was in tremendous pain, and my medications were useless. My mom took me to a local hospital that had a sickle-cell clinic.

His blood literally flows through my veins. And because of this, the illness that had caused so much suffering is gone.

While we were waiting, a woman approached us. She asked if I had sickle cell and if I had a sibling. Learning that I did and that my brother was born healthy, she explained she was part of a clinical research team investigating a possible cure involving bone-marrow transplants to eligible participants. Would I be interested? Would my brother get tested to see if he would be a match?

I stared at her, floored. Days later my brother was tested, and results confirmed he was a perfect match.

On January 14, 2010, my brother called telling me he believed I had been approved for the transplant. This news was later confirmed. A couple months later, in bed amid needles, tubes, with occasional pain shooting through his back, he gave me cells that changed my life. Since my transplant on April 14, 2010, my blood type changed from B+ to O+—just like my brother’s. His blood literally flows through my veins. And because of this, the illness that had caused so much suffering is gone.

Experiential Understanding

Abraham faced the test of his life when he was called to sacrifice his son Isaac. But the command from God was not just a test of faith; it was an opportunity for him to grasp something greater. This experience caused Abraham to come face to face with the gospel. Now he understood the magnitude of love that offers a Son for sinful people. And in the anguish of placing his son on the altar, Abraham glimpsed the heart of God and understood the cost of the sacrifice that would be made for him—for all of us.

My experience gave me an opportunity to better understand this salvation we talk about. There is a fundamental difference between a blood transfusion and a transplant. A transfusion is an injection of another person’s blood, which for a time makes you feel better. In my moments of severe crisis this was my treatment, but it was a temporary fix.

My transplant did something completely different. Instead of “band-aiding” the problem, it removed it entirely. The defective cells that were producing defective blood were killed, replaced by the healthy cells of my brother. My transplant didn’t alter my blood for a time—it changed my blood forever, giving me a brand-new life.

Sounds a lot like the gospel, doesn’t it?

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Eze. 36:26, NASB).* This is the gospel, and this is salvation. Not a patched-up heart, not a temporary fix, but a complete transformation. And that transformation is available because a Brother, despised, afflicted, persecuted, and finally killed, gave Himself so we, His enemies, could be healed.

* Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Afia Donkor is a volunteer at Lifestyle Canada Education Service.