Leukemia. It's not for wimps.

When I was 33, I was diagnosed with cancer for the second time in my life. This is my account of having leukemia and the following years of recovery.


4. Transplant

In October when I was diagnosed, the doctors told me that ultimately, the best option was to have a bone marrow transplant. So we began searching for a donor right away. Both of my parents were tested, but, as expected, they were both only half matches. A half match would work, but for the best results, we wanted someone that was a 100% match to me. When I put the word out on Facebook, people began offering to donate. Friends, family, strangers, all got tested. I'm not sure then that any of us really knew what the implications of being a donor were. 

I've mentioned how unbelievably painful a bone marrow biopsy is. When they do a biopsy, they take about an ounce of marrow. When it's a donation, they take a lot more than that. How much more? I don't actually know. It's enough that rather than do the procedure on an awake patient, the patient is put to sleep to donate. I think that is merciful. These donors are being so selfless, they deserve to not be in pain. So the donor goes to sleep, wakes up a few ounces short of marrow, and in a day or two, goes back to normal life. A simple procedure to save someone's life. 

The build up to transplant was intense. First there was the search. Tons of people got tested. Unfortunately the likelihood of a friend being a match is as likely as 'stopping a car on I-85 and having the driver be a match,' according to the transplant coordinator. However, when they were tested, their information went into a world wide database. They weren't a match for me, but someday, they just might save the life of someone else. 

While my medical team was searching for a donor, my job was to stay as healthy as possible. A job that, as you read in the last chapter, I failed miserably. The last week in November, we got a match! Not just one, but two, 100% matches!! We were elated! We planned the transplant for the end of December. Unfortunately, at the end of December, I was in the hospital. So the transplant had to be postponed. 

My donor, a German woman approximately my same age, was only available until the end of January. I never heard about the second donor. All the focus was on this German savior. So there was a rush to not only get me out of the hospital, but get me as healthy as I could possibly be before January 23. That was the last possible day that she was available. 

I went home from my ICU nightmare with a walker. I could barely get myself up and down off the couch, out of bed, off the toilet. I couldn't bathe myself. I could feed myself, but getting to the kitchen was a chore. Getting to and from the clinic was a nightmare.The first appointment was the day after I got out of the hospital. They didn't give me even one day off. That morning, I knew I needed to shower before I went in... I sat on the side of the tub and Rob helped give me a sponge bath. It took forever. I was frustrated. I think I cried. 

We made it into the clinic a mere 30 minutes late. I told them what had happened. They were all understanding. I saw my transplant coordinator. She looked at me and looked at my walker and she said, 'What is this?' So I caught her up on my ICU stay, my issues with mobility. I thought I adequately explained my sob story. I finished and she said, 'Ok well I'll be meeting with you next Monday and I don't want you coming in with this (she pointed to the walker) anymore.' My first thought was, 'Geez, how heartless!' My second thought was, 'I'll show her though... there's no way I'm coming in here with a walker next week.' And for those of you that don't know me, I'm pretty stubborn and I would've crawled into that office rather than come in with a walker again. 

That week at home, I made myself walk a little further everyday. I pushed myself to get off the couch, to get out of bed. The doctor had told Rob not to do things for me that I could do myself. So over that week, I bathed myself while Rob stood close by for support or to help balance me, I fixed some of my own food, I got up and got things instead of asking for them. I pushed myself and Rob pushed me as well. It wasn't easy. I got mad and frustrated and I cried. But every time I met a new milestone, I was proud of myself. And on Monday morning, I walked into the clinic without my walker. I walked slowly and I stopped to rest, but I did it! 

Over the next few weeks, I had more tests. CT scans, MRI's, a lumbar puncture, a blood patch to fix the lumbar puncture (that's a painful story all of it's own). I had a new central line, a Tri-Star, placed in my chest. It would be used for my transplant, my chemo, and then fluids after my transplant. 

Finally January 21 was here! My donor had donated her marrow and it was flown from Germany to Atlanta that same day. At 0700, I walked into the Blood and Marrow Transplant Unit with Rob and my parents in tow. We were so excited! This was it! This was the big day!! The plan was for me to be admitted, they would give me my transplant, watch me for a few hours and then I would be discharged. A nurse I'd never met walked me to my room. I changed from my outside clothes and isolation gown to my freshly laundered clothes in a sealed bag that we brought with us. My parents and Rob took turns in the bathroom doing the same. 

The nurse came in and explained the procedure to us. About half an hour before the lab was ready to release the cells to her, she would give me Tylenol and Claritin,as if I were receiving a blood transfusion. And then she would also give me IV Ativan and Benadryl. That pretty much insured that I would be sleeping for a few hours. 

She did exactly as she said she would. The Ativan made me sleepy. I was awake when they brought in the donor marrow though. With all the months of buildup, I expected something amazing! A huge fanfare! The stem cells would be carried in on a silver platter with a gospel choir and/or a New Orleans Jazz Band marching behind it! That didn't happen. 

Someone from the lab brought up a bag of something that looked like a weak bag of blood. She and the nurse and another nurse (I think... I was on Ativan after all), checked the information on the bag against the information on my bracelet and my chart. Then my nurse hung the bag. It was almost exactly like a blood transfusion. I fell asleep soon afterwards. 

My dad fell asleep as well. I think my mom and Rob might have gotten some rest too. The infusion ended pretty quickly. The nurse continued to take my vital signs a few more times and eventually I was able to go home. I am happy to say I walked, slowly, without my walker the entire way. After the first clinic visit without it, it went into the back of the car and eventually into the garage, where I'm sure it's doing something useful like collecting dust. I don't miss it. 

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