How a Chance Phone Call Saved Her Life

She hadn’t talked to her brother in 30 years. Could she track him down to see if he was a donor match?

Posted in , Aug 26, 2021

Angels intertwined with the number 707; Illustration by Carlos Zamora

”I think I can help find your brother,” Anne said.

My friend had taken me by surprise. I gripped the phone tighter. “How?”

“From a search engine that publishes people’s names, addresses and phone numbers online.”

I hung up the phone feeling conflicted. I knew I needed to stay realistic, but a part of me felt a glimmer of hope. My life depended on tracking down my brother.

Four months earlier, I woke one morning with blinding back pain. A quick Google search indicated a kidney infection. I went in for a checkup, thinking I’d be prescribed antibiotics and be on my way. But 30 minutes into my appointment, my doctor was pointing out the bright spots on my chest X-ray, as big as hailstones.

I had mantle cell lymphoma (MCL). Considered incurable, MCL patients have an average life expectancy of five years.

At the time of my diagnosis, I was Stage IV. My bone marrow was a cancerous mush. I had so little oxygen in my bloodstream that without emergency transfusions a heart attack was inevitable.

The treatment began that day. After months of intensive inpatient chemo, I was emaciated and bald, but—against all odds—in remission. The bad news? To prevent a recurrence, I needed a stem cell transplant. I had to have a donor who was a genetic match.

According to my oncologist, each of my siblings had a 25-percent chance of being genetically compatible. I had two brothers who were willing to be donors, which raised the odds to 50-50. Neither brother, however, tested positive for a match. I hadn’t told my oncologist about Johnny, my youngest brother. He and I hadn’t spoken in years. When I finally mentioned him, she said, “You have to find him.”

An abusive mother and an alcoholic father created a traumatizing childhood for all of us, but especially for Johnny. After high school, he moved out of our mother’s Los Angeles home and headed for Huntington Beach, where he loved to surf. We communicated infrequently. Phone calls were strained. I was married with a daughter, a career and a house in Northern California. Meanwhile, Johnny supported himself doing odd jobs, growing psychedelic mushrooms and embracing the beach culture of Southern California. I encouraged him to find a job that did not carry the risk of prison. He believed I judged him unfairly. That was our last conversation, 30 years ago. After that call, he disappeared from my life. No one in my family had any idea where he was now.

Could my friend’s internet sleuthing do what my family couldn’t? And did Johnny even want to be found?

Anne knew all of this painful family history and was at my door the next morning to hand over some print-outs. I would be the one to make the calls.

There were more than 40 addresses for a Johnny Schultz in Southern California, all with phone numbers that took up three pages. The sight of my brother’s name listed over and over made my heart pound.

The third page contained only one entry. There was no address, but the 707 area code for the Sonoma County region told me this one wasn’t him. Sonoma County was not far from where I lived, beautiful in its own right, but with its rugged beaches and cold climate, it was an incompatible world for a beach boy like my brother.

I sat down at the kitchen table with my work cut out for me. Trembling, I dialed the first number…and the second…and the rest, until I’d called every phone number on the page. People answered: some kind, some brusque. No one had a sister named Susan. I left messages when a machine picked up.

I did the same for every number on page two—same results. If messages were returned, they weren’t my Johnny. I had no way of knowing if my brother had heard a message I’d left and just decided not to return the call. I didn’t know if I should leave a second message for those who didn’t call back. It was awkward enough when people answered, and I didn’t want to harass strangers on voicemail. I appreciated my friend Anne wanting to follow every lead, but I went to bed thinking we’d hit a dead end.

The next day, I got up my courage and looked over the list again—most of the names now confirmed to be a different Johnny. The lone number on the last page stared out at me from the whiteness. I dialed, just to be done with it. The phone rang and rang. No answer. Not even a machine. I had left no stone unturned and still had come up with nothing.

Almost nothing, I thought after I’d gotten into bed that night. The endless ringing of that one last number seemed to hang in the air. I turned on my bedside lamp and picked up Anne’s list, certain that my effort would be useless. I redialed the 707 number. Again, it rang and rang. No answer. No machine. I was just torturing myself. I hung up.

Just one more time, something told me. I redialed. The phone rang…

“Hello?” It had been three decades, but I recognized the voice with that one word. It was my Johnny.

My brother was surprised to hear from me, but the conversation flowed easily as we caught up. He asked how in the world I’d managed to get ahold of him. His 707 phone number had always been unlisted, he said, except for one recent week, when someone at the phone company had made a mistake. Anne must have done her research during the short time Johnny’s number was erroneously listed.

My palms were damp when I explained why I’d called. I needed him to possibly save my life. Johnny didn’t hesitate before agreeing to help.

The hospital sent him a testing kit. My youngest brother was a match! His stem cells and the new immune system they created have kept me alive and well for the past 16 years.

Johnny and I have reconnected on a deeper level too, something I never dreamed possible. It felt good to say I had three brothers again, and angels of every kind who never gave up on me.

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