How to save a life

I never met Jill Costello, but I wish I had. I’ve only seen pictures: the effervescent smile, the rosy cheeks, the brown hair eventually replaced by a blonde wig. I’ve heard the Cal women’s coxswain was an endlessly cheerful person, a courageous soul who turned her struggle into a campaign against her disease and its accompanying stigma.

Her life ended on June 24, 2010 — dead at 22, a nonsmoker claimed by stage IV lung cancer. Dead at 22, because life isn’t fair.

The following lines are taken from Matisyahu’s “One Day,” Jill’s favorite song and the one that accompanied a video made in her memory:

Sometimes in my tears I drown
But I never let it get me down.
So when negativity surrounds,
I know one day, it’ll all turn around.

The lyrics are a fitting soundtrack to Jill’s legacy. But what if they’re wrong? Because things don’t always turn around. Because Jill Costello, after all, is no longer here.

I’ve never met Jack Chin, but I hope I someday will. Jack, 23 years old, is a former UCLA student and one-time West Point cadet. He wants to finish his degree, find a consulting or analyst job and eventually enter the FBI or foreign service.

Jack has acute lymphoblastic leukemia. This means that malignant, immature white blood cells are multiplying in his bone marrow, crowding out the red blood cells his body needs. Pills and chemotherapy have failed. If Jack does not get new marrow, he will die.

So if you read no more of this column, please remember this: Upper Sproul will host a marrow donor registry drive on Feb. 14 and 15. On Valentine’s Day, get your cheek swabbed; it may help save Jack’s life.

His chances aren’t good. His family members — including my friend Jim, his fraternal twin — don’t have compatible marrows. The chance of finding a match outside the family is one in 20,000. White patients have almost a 90 percent chance of finding a match; minority patients have about 45 percent. Only 7 percent of the registry is Asian.

I don’t know if this story will end in triumph. On average, only one for every 540 registered members will go on to donate. Even if a match turns up, the person might not be found or may not be willing. It is easier having a Q-tip stuck in your mouth than a needle in your arm or pelvic bone. In the face of these odds, Jack admits to being “bitter, scared and depressed.” He should be, because no matter how brave he is, death does not wait. It did not wait for Jill, and it will not wait for Jack.

I am fortunate enough to never have lost a loved one. My personal brushes with death have always been degrees removed — a friend of a friend, a former classmate, a neighbor. I am standing outside the cave, feeling only the faint echoes. I cannot imagine walking in.

On the afternoon of June 24, 2010, I called Dave O’Neill, the Cal women’s crew coach. I was writing the news of Jill’s death and needed comments. I started with an apology because — well, because that’s what you say when people die. I rushed through questions about Jill’s life, about what it was like when he heard the news. I closed with another apology.

I felt insensitive, invasive and terribly inadequate trying to navigate those wounds. I feel something similar now. Jill’s life came to mind when I thought about Jack. I hope I am not co-opting it improperly, and I apologize if I am. My words are failing now, but that doesn’t really matter. I just hope Jack lives.

To learn more about Jack’s fight, go to
To learn more about bone marrow donation, visit

An earlier version of this article stated that, on average, one in 540 bone marrow registry members follow through on their commitment. In fact, one in 540 members are matched, found and go on to donate.