Today is exactly the right day to give heartfelt thanks to a stranger.

As the new year begins, it’s a great time to put gratitude under a microscope. Plenty of research shows if we regularly practice gratitude by noticing and reflecting on things we’re thankful for, we sleep better, heal faster, love deeper and experience life more fully.

Today I’m sharing my deep and abiding gratitude to a complete stranger, a person I know I’ll never meet. But if I did, here’s what I’d say:

First and foremost, Anonymous Bone Marrow Donor, thank you. Thank you for adding your name to an international registry of donors who are on-call for active duty. A military analogy seems apt for describing the way you and your fellow volunteers spend months or even years awaiting a phone call that informs you, you’re up. Not long ago, on what probably started out as a perfectly ordinary day, someone from Be The Match told you your bone marrow matched that of someone terribly ill. In this case, the patient is a beloved teenage boy, a dear lad with a laser bright smile who’s sweet and generous and funny and strong. Right now, due to a rare bone marrow disease, he’s awfully skinny and the wrong shade of pale.

Donor, by the time anyone reads this, our young friend already will have your healthy stem cells on 24/7 patrol, carrying out a critical search-and-find mission for his bone marrow. When they find it, your foreign but friendly (we hope, we pray, we demand) stem cells will serve as the building blocks for brand new blood cells in this boy’s fragile body.

I say again: thank you.

I’ve learned bone marrow donors can remain anonymous, or they can contact the recipient of their soft tissue one year post-transplant. Donor, I don’t know if you’ll ever reach out to our dear friends when this terrible year is behind them. At this point, all any of us know is that you’re a 23-year-old healthy male. You could be here in California, grateful for every drop of the recent rain that might make a dent in our stubborn drought. You might live in the United Kingdom, where you’re already thinking about fruity mince pies and colorful Christmas crackers. Maybe you’re in Germany, Sweden or Poland, some of the many countries with donor centers that welcome selfless folks like you.

Donor, what kind of guy in his early twenties voluntarily signs up to undergo a harrowing “harvest” procedure? Has an anonymous angel saved someone you loved? Have you lost someone you treasured to an intractable blood disease? Or are you one of those rare altruistic souls with compassion to spare?

The thing is, Donor, I’ve done enough research to know that compassion only goes so far. Saving a stranger’s life takes unwavering commitment, too. I know you (and your bone marrow) underwent extensive genetic analysis to confirm the match. Once approved, you spent a week taking drugs to boost the production of your own stem cells. In the operating room, you lay on your stomach and dozed under general anesthesia while doctors used special needles to extract soft, precious marrow from the spongy center of your hard hip bones.

An hour later, you slowly woke up in the recovery room, with an IV dripping your own red blood cells back into your veins. You were exhausted. Your throat hurt. You probably vomited. Your body was sore for days from the countless needle pricks.

While a nurse helped you to the bathroom, up to two quarts of your magical marrow already was winging its way to our local hospital, where another brave young man waited in his own open-backed gown. He’d already undergone chemo to prepare for your incredible gift. The bone marrow transplant itself was like one of the many IV blood transfusions he’d already endured. Today, a few days after the procedure, our dear friend is now the one on active duty, declaring war on fever and infection as if his life depends on it.

Because it does.

Today, Donor, I’m honored to share my boundless gratitude to you and your brethren — for your compassion, your commitment and your strong, sustaining marrow.

Willow Older is a nationally and internationally published writer and a professional editor. She lives in Northern California where she runs her own editorial services business and publishes a weekly newsletter called Newsy!.

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