Harriet Brasserie owner saves a life with bone marrow donation

Harriet Brasserie owner Fernando Silva donated bone marrow last winter.

Fernando Silva didn’t give it much thought when he joined a bone marrow registry eight years ago during a walk around Lake Harriet.

Then he got a call in January. He was a perfect match for a young patient.  It took a while for Silva to grasp what they were asking, and what it would involve: a blood draw, two trips to Rochester’s Mayo Clinic and a four-hour donation procedure under anesthesia.

Silva took the call from Be The Match at the Armatage Park playground with his seven-year-old son. Surrounded by kids, he said the decision was not difficult.

“It’s all worth it, going to be able to help someone,” he said. “It’s an awesome feeling.”

Silva said he was very nervous about the anesthesia; he’d never been put under before. He woke up early the day of the procedure and took a long shower.

“I have to face my biggest fear,” he said.

He arrived at the hospital, elevator doors opened, and a handful of people walked out. The last to exit was the Dalai Lama, who was visiting the Mayo Clinic last winter for a private speaking event.

“He came straight to me and started to talk,” said Silva.

The Dalai Lama straightened Silva’s hat, slapped his cheeks and fixed his shirt — something Silva’s uncle did on the farm in Brazil whenever Silva traveled to the city. He said the encounter calmed him. He joked that if he died under anesthesia, he would probably be fine.

“He was the first interaction of that day,” Silva said.

Silva closed the restaurant for one day following the procedure. That day, a huge snowstorm hit.

“That was God saying it’s not going to be too bad at the restaurant, you’re not going to make any money,” he said with a laugh.

It can take several weeks for a bone marrow donor to regain full strength. Silva said he typically plows through 16-18 hour workdays, so he noticed the change in energy.

“Three to four times a day, I want to sit down. For me that’s new,” he said.

Silva said he’s been amazed to learn the science of the procedure. In the days leading up to the transplant, the patient was blasted with chemo to wipe out defective bone marrow cells. Then within a six-eight hour period, Silva’s bone marrow was transplanted from his body to the patient’s.

“She has my blood type, my bone marrow, she becomes a little bit of me,” Silva said. “From now on, she’s walking around with my DNA in her veins. … As far as I understand, she’s doing great.”

Silva said minority donors are the most difficult to find. His own genetic makeup includes Portuguese, Dutch, African American and Brazilian ancestry. According to Be The Match, the likelihood of finding a bone marrow match is 93 percent for a Caucasian, 72 percent for a Latino and 66 percent for an African American.

“You never know when you can help someone,” Silva said.

Silva plans to join a Be The Match Walk+Run at Lake Harriet the morning of Saturday, May 14. The event includes a registry drive.

Harriet Brasserie marks four years in business at the end of May, and an anniversary party is scheduled for Sunday, June 12.