We arrived at the hospital early in the morning, anxious and excited only to find out that the cells would not be arriving until late afternoon. Every nurse or staff person who came in buzzed with “news” about The Donor, The Arrival, The Moment. But when Dr. Lee arrived with two other physicians, we got the true story. The cells were being flown in and due to land at George W. Bush airport around 5:30. The cells were to be infused “fresh” (sans preservative, so no smelly Laura), but they had to be “washed” first (conditioned in some way) so it would take some additional time between arrival and when they would be ready for infusion. Dr. Lee speculated that it would be after 8pm.
A short sigh, then we changed to plan two for the day.
The floor chaplain arrived not long after we got there, very nice man, who chatted for awhile, then asked Laura if she wanted the cells blessed before infusion. It was a striking moment that brought tears to my eyes. When Cliff and I were alone later, he admitted that he got choked up too. We remembered back to the moment we knew we were having our first baby, the moment she came into this world as a product of our love, the moment she spoke her vows to man she loves. The moment we were told she has cancer. Today will (hopefully) be the day that marks her cure. It seemed so right that the cells would be blessed. The emotional impact of it made sense.
We were there and ready around 8pm, but as is often the case, timing is relative. We know that the cells arrived at the airport on time, but 8pm passed without word. No word on timing, but we did know that a nurse would arrive to administer Benadryl prior to the cell infusion, so every nurse or assistant so entered made us jump. It didn’t take them long to announce “not yet” as they entered.
Laura developed a rash around 6pm, which brought in Dr. Lee and two other team physicians up to exam her. In kind of a comical moment, they each examined the rash, confirmed there was a rash, expressed their pleasure that it was reported before the cell infusion, then Dr. Lee literally shrugged and threw up his hands. Yeah, stuff like that happens. He offered l Benadryl to stop the rash, but Laura didn’t want to be groggy or asleep when the cells arrived, so they decided just to have the nurses watch it, since they would be administering Benadryl anyway to head off any allergic reaction from the cells prior to infusion.
Finally, about 10:15, the two nurses arrived with the Benedryl, followed by the on-call chaplain and Dr. Lee with the cells. It was very much like what you see on television when the physicians step off the helicopter with an organ in a cooler.
Dr. Lee showed the bag to each of us while the nurses hooked up the Benadryl IV. The cells were much brighter red than I imagined, kind of the color of strawberry jam, and the bag was about the size of textbook. It held just under a liter of precious cells. The more I looked at them, considered them , the more deeply I was touched at how another human, a stranger, would endure what he did (receiving 50 needles into his hip bones on each side) in order to freely offer his life-saving cells to a total stranger. May all good things come to him in his life.
Dr. Lee handed the bag for Phil to hold and we all laid our hands on it while the chaplain led us in a prayer. I thought about all the researchers, scientists, pioneers, patients, physicians, nurses that brought us to this point and how their work meant that this moment might be the last that Laura would struggle with cancer. For all of those who think and science is at odds with the spiritual world, this moment proved them wrong.
The nurses hooked up the IV and we watched the precious cells snake through the tube and enter Laura’s body. The nurses and Dr. Lee closely monitored her and took vitals every five minutes for the first 20 minutes. Everything looked good, so Dr. Lee left the monitoring in the hands of the nurses who continued taking vitals every five minutes for another 40 minutes. Everything looked very good. The infusion continued until about 3AM.
Now comes the hope for grafting to begin. What they’ve discovered is that the patient can help this process along by exercising every day to make the blood circulate. Laura couldn’t be happier with an assignment.
For now, she is tired, relieved, anxious, excited and ready to climb back up to full health. Amen.
The Journey Begins
The journey has now gotten very, very real. Back in December of 2008 when Laura was diagnosed with Chromic Myelogeous Leukemia and treated with the ‘miracle’ drug, Gleevec , the word cancer didn’t seem as scary. Though Laura endured constant nausea, sleeplessness and other side effects, blood work seemed to show that the drug was working. At one point she was even declared in hematological remission.
Everything changed about a year later when her follow-up bone marrow biopsy revealed a significant number of cancer cells still in the bone marrow. Her oncologist prescribed Tsigna, a newer generation of the same type of drug as Gleevec and consulted with the foremost expert in the use of this class of drugs in the treatment of CML, Dr. Hagop Kantarjian at MD Anderson. After thorough re-testing and analysis, Dr. Kantarjian concluded that the standard drug therapy would not treat her leukemia and that she needed a bone marrow transplant.
Since that day in February of 2010, Laura and consequently all of us have been preparing for what is now our immediate reality. Laura and Phil have been in Texas for a week now, Laura undergoing a barrage of outpatient tests and procedures, Phil searching for an apartment while also being at Laura’s side. Each successive day and every procedure and test has brought her one day closer to the stark reality that to get past this cancer she has to travel a very rough road in the next few weeks.
That reality hit hard yesterday when they inserted her port. Today, she has all of her hair shaved off. Saturday the chemo begins. August 27th she will have her transplant. And then, we wait. Days, weeks, months of monitoring and evaluating.