In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

June 1, 2022

In retrospect: Letter from bone marrow transplant recipient to her 19-year-old self celebrates survival

By In the Loop
19-year-old Wendy Zins wearing a nurse's hat that her Mayo nurses made for her.

Wendy Zins writes a letter to her 19-year-old self on the anniversary of her bone marrow transplant each year. The letter is a reminder and acknowledgment of the key people and things that helped her survive.


Wendy Zins was 18, had just graduated from high school, and was looking forward to the next chapter in her life. That's when a diagnosis of leukemia derailed her immediate plans.

A year later, when she was 19, Wendy received a bone marrow transplant at Mayo Clinic. That was May 2, 1985.

For several years now, Wendy has been honoring the anniversary of that transplant by writing a letter to her 19-year-old self, with a little help from a cousin. Each year, she updates the letter with new happenings in her life and marks another year of survival. She turned 56 in 2022.

The letter begins, "You don’t know this now, but you are receiving what you will one day come to recognize as your 'lifesaving bone marrow transplant.' The air is filled with equal parts doubt and hope. You didn’t have a perfect match with any of your siblings, so this will be the Mayo Clinic’s first attempt at a half-match bone marrow transplant. You are careful not to let it show, but you are terrified."

At the time of the transplant, Wendy didn't know anyone else who had received a bone marrow transplant or know of anyone who had survived very long after one.

"Your doctors can’t give you any solid statistics on your life expectancy. There just aren't any," the letter reads. "The medical team can only tell you the bone marrow should start producing healthy blood cells in 100 days. This is your goal and you do not dare to dream beyond it."

Writing the letter to herself is a reminder and acknowledgment of the key things that helped her survive, Wendy says. The letter goes on to tell the story of the success of her transplant and her gratitude for her family and her Mayo care team.

In the years following her transplant — before the days of the internet, email and social media — Wendy would send thank-you cards to her care team at Mayo, along with current photographs of her family. The gesture gave her the opportunity to stay connected and let the team know that the work they are doing has made all the difference in the world for at least one person.

Louis Letendre, M.D., a member of the emeritus staff in Hematology, has kept a folder with Wendy's cards and photographs. He liked to show the photos of a healthy and happy Wendy to his patients and challenge them to point out the person who received a bone marrow transplant. It was his way of letting his patients know that healing and hope were in the cards for them, too.

Wendy Zins with her brother, Kurt, who was her bone marrow transplant donor.

Years later, Wendy began posting the letter to herself on her website.

There were times when she questioned sharing it so broadly. But she's learned that the letter has offered hope for others facing similar health challenges.

"Every year, I get word from someone who read it for themselves or read it and passed it along to someone who needed to hear the message of hope," she says. "It's not about me. It's not about saying that I had cancer. But it's important to know I exist."

All these years later, Wendy continues to stay in touch with her Mayo care team. When she and her husband were about to take a trip to South America, she emailed Morie Gertz, M.D., to find out if immunizations that were required to travel to the continent were safe for her.

Dr. Gertz responded within five minutes, she says. Wendy playfully questioned why it took him so long to get back to her.

His response: "You're a V.I.P., and you should be treated as such."

It's a status she doesn't take lightly, she says.


Read Wendy's letter below:

Dearest Nineteen,

Today is May 2, 1985. This morning a bag full of what looks like thick, bright red blood is being infused into your system. You don't know this now, but you are receiving what you will one day come to recognize as your "lifesaving bone marrow transplant." The air is filled with equal parts doubt and hope. You didn't have a perfect match with any of your siblings, so this will be the Mayo Clinic's first attempt at a half-match bone marrow transplant. You are careful not to let it show, but you are terrified.

Your mom just got off the phone with your aunt Marlene back home in Nicollet, Minnesota.  She called to say a group of family and friends got together this morning to pray for the success of your transplant. They are calling themselves the Tuesday Morning Prayer Group. You don't know this now, but they are your earth angels. The group will go on to pray for thousands of people over many more decades.

Your doctors can't give you any solid statistics on your life expectancy. There just aren't any. The medical team can only tell you the bone marrow should start producing healthy blood cells in 100 days. This is your goal and you do not dare to dream beyond it. You don’t know this now, but you will survive those 100 days by a long shot. About 20 years from now, one of your doctors will introduce you to his colleagues as a "miracle." Though you will have heard this many times before, today the reality of the statement hits you. Every year on this date, you will continue to reach out and give thanks, not only to God, your family and friends but also to the doctors and nurses who helped save your life.

All you want to do is go home, sleep in your own bed and see your cat Gladys. You don't know this now, but you will get your life back. Of course, it won't be exactly the same. Over the next few years, you will suffer with anxiety and always wonder, "Is this our last holiday together?" This question will eventually fade. But other questions will stay with you. For example, when someone dies whose time on earth you feel has been cut too short, you will always ask yourself, "Why them and not me?" and wonder, "Am I really worthy of this life?" You will come to accept that you are worthy and that there probably is no answer to the why question. You will take great comfort knowing without doubt that there is a place overflowing with love you will go to after your time here on earth.

You don't know this now, but you are going to have another dance with breast cancer. But it won't slow you down. Well, not for long. Even though this is not the deja vu life moment you would have chosen, you know you will have the same support of family and friends you've had in the past and when in doubt you'll keep saying to yourself, "I've got this. I've got this."

Most of all, you just want to feel better again. You don't know this now, but you will be healthy and discover new strengths about who you are. A strong and ever-growing network of family and friends will keep you safe, loved and cared for. You will love deeply and laugh wholeheartedly.

Chemotherapy will affect your ability to have children, but you have your hands and heart full with many adoring children in your life. You will be a positive role model for these kids and as they grow you will experience pride and joy unlike any you have ever known.

Your journey with cancer and the span of life experiences lying ahead of you will teach you the power of faith, science and unwavering love. You don't know this now, but what looks like the end, is really just the beginning.

Love always,
Fifty-Six  
May 2, 2022 / 37th Anniversary

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Tags: Bone Marrow Transplant, Dr. Louis Letendre, Dr. Morie Gertz, Patient Stories, Practice story

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