There are times when making a decision to help does not require weighing options, mulling outcomes, or thinking about yourself.
Sometimes, it is automatic, a leap of faith, and a matter of survival.
Aidan Falk, a junior first baseman on Michigan’s softball team, watched as a sixth-grader as her sister, Emma, older by 15 months, endured grueling chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Emma had been in remission when she was diagnosed four years later with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
She was a junior in high school in Rochester, N.Y., and Aidan a sophomore. They played on the same teams, they had many of the same friends, did many of the same activities and were as close as sisters could be.
Emma needed a bone marrow transplant.
While many are swept up in Valentine’s Day, it also is National Donor Day. There are about 14,000 people who must wait to find a donor outside of their family. There is a 25 to 30 percent chance for a donor within the family who can provide compatible marrow, the soft, spongy material that makes more than 200 billion new blood cells every day.
The sisters remember very clearly the day Emma called Aidan with the news.
“She could barely speak, and my heart dropped because I was like, ‘What’s happening? This is not good,’” Aidan said.
“The worst thing was running through my mind. And then she said, ‘You’re a match,’ and I started sobbing and she started sobbing so it was a really cool moment. It didn’t sink in. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m a match,’ and then, ‘Oh my God, I’m a match.’ The chances of me being a match … it was pretty much a miracle.
“Big picture-wise it was something very small to me. It wasn’t worth deciding over. She’s my sister and I would do it 100 times over if I had to. So it wasn’t like at that moment, ‘Oh, should I do this? What about my future?’ No. I didn’t let myself think of doing anything else.”
‘She saved my life’
Emma went on to play two seasons of volleyball at Loyola Maryland and has since studied abroad in Australia, taken a service trip to Jamaica, worked a summer in Chicago, interned with the Buffalo Bills and currently with the Baltimore Orioles. The two-time cancer survivor is a senior in college.
“She’s basically the reason I’m healthy and still here,” Emma said of Aidan. “I’m thankful every day. She saved my life. I know it sounds cliche, but she’s almost like my other half.”
Their parents, Jodi and John, and Emma traveled last weekend to Tampa to watch Aidan and the Wolverines in their season-opening tournament.
“When you see Emma and Aidan hug each other, there’s different hug,” John said. “You see it.”
Aidan had already gone through a lot as a sixth grader watching her sister handle three rounds of chemo and her parents doing everything possible to get the family through this awful journey. Then, as a sophomore with Emma facing cancer again, it was another challenge as her sister and parents spent considerable time in Boston at the Children’s Hospital. Her aunt, Jodi’s sister, and the sisters’ babysitter stayed with Aidan in Rochester.
“I felt totally helpless and all I wanted to do was help her get cured and I finally had something to do,” Aidan said. “So it was like, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”
The scars on Aidan’s lower back have disappeared, but doctors made two holes from which they made about 70 extractions in each to draw the liquid marrow. And since she has O-positive blood that Emma could accept, doctors took a substantial amount of blood, as well.
Aidan was out of commission for three weeks, and her back was sensitive for two months.
“I couldn’t move, I couldn’t get touched,” she said. “The first time I woke up, I was in a daze and I just remember being in a lot of pain and I didn’t move.”
She had her headphones and a playlist heavy on Maroon 5 and Justin Timberlake. The songs were on constant repeat.
“Every time I hear them,” Falk said of the songs, “I think, ‘Remember when?’”
New lease on life
Emma, though, faced a daunting climb back to health. From August until mid-November she would remain in Boston with her parents, first undergoing chemotherapy then receiving the bone marrow transplant. She would eventually be quarantined at her home for six months, and only her immediate family could be near her. They enjoyed several impromptu kitchen dance parties to lighten things.
“You’re just reacting and you’re doing whatever you can to do to help your kid,” Jodi said. “There’s no playbook, no right or wrong. You have to get up every day and find out a way to increase our chances. That’s true for anybody dealing with a sick loved one.”
This is a family of athletes. Jodi played volleyball at Cornell, John was a baseball player at LeMoyne, Aidan was a star softball player who became New York’s record-holder for most home runs in a season with 19 in 2014, and Emma, while quarantined, set returning for the softball season as a goal. Even if for five minutes, she would walk on the treadmill or pedal a bike.
She had always been a player who thrived under pressure, the pitcher who entered the game in a tense moment, so she drew from that before, during and after her cancer battles. In fact, her whole family did.
“Because they played so much, they focused on winning,” Jodi said. “Whatever we have to do, it was all about beating and winning.”
Emma certainly has changed her approach to life. She wants to travel, she wants to enjoy anything and everything. Aidan, self-described as someone who prefers routine, has become more about living in the moment.
“I try to be extremely spontaneous now,” Aidan said. “It keeps life fun. ‘OK, you want to go on a road trip? Let’s go on a road trip.’ I’ve surrounded myself with people who are like that. I’ve found a trend that people who are spontaneous typically have a very positive and a very good view on life.”
The sisters never really talk about their journey together. They will post on social media for their birthdays and from Emma to Aidan it typically boils down to, “I wouldn’t here without you,” and from Aidan to Emma, “Oh my gosh, I love you. You’re my sister.”
They are forever changed.
“It reminds me when something seems bad, it’s really not that bad,” Aidan said. “It’s a good view of life I have now. It makes it more worth it. I know it sounds pretty cheesy.
“But it’s one of those things now you take the risk, take the opportunity because you never know when you’re going to get the phone call that changes things.”