Few Words for Brother's Love

To communicate, Jean Garvey says a letter of the alphabet and son Michael nods if it's the right one in the word he wants to say.
To communicate, Jean Garvey says a letter of the alphabet and son Michael nods if it's the right one in the word he wants to say. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 25, 2005

Come into Michael Garvey's room, find him in his wheelchair, notice his treetop view about a mile from the old Rockville Courthouse, where a fall from a ladder paralyzed him 19 years ago.

Look him in the eyes, keep sight of his head. When the blinks and gazes and nods begin, pay attention. These slight movements are his way of making known his thoughts about the transplant.

The transplant was Michael's gift of blood to his brother.

Keep watching Michael's eyes as he calls to mind the day his brother, Chris, 41, sat in this very room in the Rockville Nursing Home and said his survival likely depended on Michael, specifically on Michael's blood.

Chris asked Michael whether he remembered that time a few months earlier when a nurse took a sample of Michael's blood, had it tested, found it matched Chris's. The match was an unlikely event statistically but good news for Chris, who knew eventually he'd need a bone marrow transplant. The procedure is the only known cure for his disease, myelofibrosis, which causes blood to turn hard and fibrous and carries a 20 percent fatality rate in the first two years after diagnosis.

Chris wanted to know if Michael, 44 and a paraplegic, would donate his blood, even though it would mean being in a hospital for a few days while his bone marrow was harvested, a potentially painful and lengthy procedure. A good match meant a better chance that Chris's body would not reject the transplanted blood.

"He answered 'yes' so fast," said Chris, a physical therapist and father of three young children who lives in Havertown, Pa. "When I told him about all the difficulties, he gave his head a turn to the left, indicating 'yes,' without hesitation."

Michael has no words for a moment that big. He has his body.

Here is where his eyes -- sparkling, marbled blue -- open as far as they will go, and out of his mouth comes one of the four or five sounds he is able to bring forth from a body almost entirely out of his control. One of Michael's sounds is laughter, deep-throated, happy. One of his favorite words is "great."

The one with that knowledge is his mother, Jean Garvey, who makes almost daily visits to the crowded room in the private nursing home not far from the Capital Beltway. She is a small woman in a white sweat shirt, the interpreter of the sounds and movements that are Michael's language.

On Thursday, she did the alphabet routine long ago worked out. She goes through each letter, and when she says the one Michael wants, he nods to the left. In that way, he expressed a thought about the transplant.

"It was great," he said.

"Do you have another word, Michael?" his mother asked. "If you do, look over here."

Michael did not have another word. He had his smile, and his small movements.

Different Personalities

The brothers went to the same schools -- Holy Cross Elementary School in Garrett Park, Good Counsel High School in Wheaton. They played backyard football together, shared the same reverence for their father, William, a consultant who coached sports. He died in 2001 at age 63.

In other areas, the brothers' interests diverged. Fun-loving Michael was quarterback of his Holy Cross football team, wasn't much for studying. Chris belonged to the National Honor Society and usually read more than required for his schoolwork. Michael was three years ahead of Chris in school and ran with the older kids. Chris found himself hanging with a crowd known as the "cool guy" group.

After Michael graduated from high school in 1978, he took jobs in construction. Chris graduated in 1981. After earning a degree in economics from Fairfield University in Connecticut in 1985, he was unsure what to do next. He joined his brother on a crew renovating the old Rockville Courthouse.

"I would say he and I weren't overly close in high school," Chris said. "He was definitely kind of the big brother giving me a hard time when I was a freshman, and that was normal. Then I started working for the construction company he was working for, and it wasn't until then that we started to get closer."

Michael's accident happened March 13, 1986, two weeks after his son, Keith, celebrated his first birthday.

Michael had climbed to the top of a six-foot ladder and was trying to reattach a dangling electrical cord connected to temporary lighting. He was shocked by electricity, then fell headfirst onto the concrete floor.

Chris was working upstairs. Someone went to get him. Michael was conscious, alert, talking. An ambulance took him to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, where he underwent surgery for swelling in his brain. He went into a coma and never spoke or walked again.

Pride Spreads Far

Michael had to spend three days at Inova Fairfax Hospital in December having his bone marrow harvested. The marrow was frozen and shipped to the Seattle cancer center where Chris received his transplant. Chris went through an eight-day round of chemotherapy to destroy his diseased blood cells. After a day of rest, Chris received his brother's blood.

The transplant became a story that people felt good about. People who knew the story told it over and over. One of them brought Michael a trophy. Heavy as a doorstop, the trophy is in the shape of a lion's head perched on a base inscribed with the words "The pride of the family. Everybody's hero."

The transplant gave nurses and desk clerks and some of the other 99 residents of Michael's nursing home something to talk about other than their illnesses.

The story traveled to Jean Garvey's golfing buddies, and to old friends. Word spread to nurses and patients who got to know Chris during his four months at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Chris's wife, Kathleen Lucy Garvey, 40, an account manager, posted family photographs and a treatment journal on a Web site hosted by CaringBridge.org, a nonprofit organization that provides the service to hospitalized people who want to stay in touch with friends and family.

She told her parish priest in Havertown, and he passed the word along in church announcements.

The story of Michael's act of giving inspired others. The old Holy Cross crowd held a vigil in St. Mary's Church in Rockville the night before the transplant and afterward repaired to the Miss Saigon restaurant. The CaringBridge Web site began filling with testimonials from people recalling old memories or finding old friends.

"My parents just let me know last night what you guys are going through," wrote Jim Owens of Forest Hill, Md. "It's been a long time since my contact with you and your family but that does not diminish the memories growing up in Garrett Park/Kensington."

"Garv -- your transplant has been an amazing event," another e-mail said. "You've reconnected so many people. . . . You've taught (or reminded) us to have faith, to cherish every minute with our families and to stay connected with the people in our lives."

Chris and Jean Garvey have noticed subtle changes in Michael since the transplant. They believe that he has recovered a certain lightness of feeling, seems a little younger.

It began, they say, when he showed no fear in giving.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company