A Daughter’s Legacy

December 6, 2010 at 4:41 pm


Below is an article written by Dean Eller, CEO of Central California Blood Center, about his daughter’s battle with leukemia and his commitment to carrying on her legacy. Thank you, Dean, for sharing your story with our audience.

“There’s no easy way to tell you this,” lamented the doctor that day in January of 1992. “It’s what we feared. A very aggressive type of leukemia. One-third of those diagnosed die within 30 days. I’m sorry.”

My wife, Claudia, and I sat in shock. Words choked within us. How could this be? Our daughter, Jenny, was an attractive high-school senior—a straight-A student! As the all-star catcher on the softball team at Bullard High School in Fresno, California, she was being recruited by several Division I universities. As we drove home from the doctor’s office, I asked Jenny what she thought. Without hesitation she said, “I just don’t want you and Mom to be sad…because I’m not sad. I’m a little nervous about the treatment, but I’m not sad! I know God is in control, and whatever the outcome, I know I am in His will.”

Her composure stunned me. At a time when most teenagers would be falling apart, my daughter picked me up, put me on her shoulders and carried me. For the next four years, as she fought this cancer, she showed me what courage—and life—is all about.

Six powerful words

Within days, Jenny began chemotherapy. Because the treatment wiped out her body’s ability to make blood, she received at least two transfusions a week. Over time she would use hundreds and hundreds of pints of life-saving blood.

I’d first seen the need for blood in Vietnam when I was 21 and serving as a medic, but I’d never known anyone like Jenny who needed so much blood to stay alive. Not long after she was diagnosed, our local blood bank asked Jenny to attend its annual appreciation luncheon to thank the donors. Claudia and I remember that day clearly. Jenny wore a long dress, and her head was bald. She walked up to the podium and looked out at the 800 regular donors in the audience, held out her hands, and her chin began to quiver: “Thank you . . . for letting me live.”

Six words. The most powerful words a blood donor can hear.

“My body no longer makes blood,” Jenny explained, “and every ounce in me belongs to someone else. Your blood may be coursing through my veins right now! Thank you for letting me live.”

Jenny understood that those donors were keeping her alive, and she became passionate about increasing the blood supply in our community.

For the next four years, Jenny became the official spokesperson for the Central California Blood Center. She spoke to service groups, schools, and churches throughout the area. She did media interviews and commercials, and even called potential blood donors—sometimes from her hospital bed—all while fighting this insidious disease.

Four precious years

When Jenny died on October 28, 1995, a month before her 22nd birthday, she lost her battle with leukemia, but she fulfilled her purpose in life. Just before she died, I promised her that I would carry on that work. To me, it was like receiving a spiritual transfusion.

At Jenny’s memorial service, I urged people to give blood in her memory and to consider becoming regular donors (giving every eight weeks). For many, the importance of donating blood finally hit home. I gave my first speech two days after we buried Jenny, speaking in her place at a Rotary Club meeting.

Hundreds of faithful donors kept our daughter alive and gave us almost four more years together—a gift beyond measure. Four precious years that Jenny enjoyed as she finished high school and started college, an optimistic pre-med major. Four years of celebrating birthdays, Christmases, and family outings. That’s what blood donors gave us. Not just blood, but four more years for this father to watch his daughter mature into a young woman and fall in love with a wonderful young man. Four more years of father-daughter talks into the wee hours of the morning, just the two of us.

Not just blood, but memories to last a lifetime.

The Blood Banker

In November 1999 I became president and CEO of the Central California Blood Center and worked hard to turn around the Center’s blood deficit. In the last six years—in what I believe is the direct confirmation of my calling—we have not had to import even one pint! In fact, today we export between 500 and 1,000 units of blood every month to other blood centers in need.

Individual names aren’t available, but I know that thousands and thousands of lives around the country have been prolonged or saved because Jenny fulfilled her purpose in life and helped me rediscover mine.

Johnson & Johnson put together a video about Jenny’s life which you can watch on YouTube here.