A Long Overdue Thank You for a Priceless Gift

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Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia smear

I’m ashamed.

As someone who prides herself on promptness, I am more than a little tardy. In fact, one might accuse me of being over a decade behind. But, better late than …  Really, there is no excuse.

When I began my Bucket List of Gratitude, I should have started out with the woman who gave a gift more precious than gold. Who performed an act of kindness and love more treasured than a cache of diamonds.

She saved my husband’s life.

That woman is my sister-in-law, my husband’s devoted sibling, Karen.

A little family history:

In 2001, my husband, Matt, was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). For a brief period, his disease was kept at bay with the latest miracle drug. This respite from the ravages of cancer lasted for about 18 months. Matt’s persistently stubborn immune system had become resistant to the medication and his condition had transitioned into the acute phase. His situation was critical. Just a couple months shy of his birthday, he needed a stem cell transplant immediately to garner any hope of making it to his 40s.

Karen was declared a match and the best hope for her brother’s survival. Without hesitation, she agreed to be his donor.

Collecting stem cells is much more complicated than giving a pint or two of blood. The contributor undergoes an arduous process of preparation before the process of “harvesting” can begin. For five days, the designated donor receives injections to increase stem cell production. These shots have their own set of significant side effects. Karen experienced them all including headache, bone and muscle aches, nausea, insomnia, and fatigue. 

Finally, it came time to gather what had been sown into Karen’s bloodstream. For a woman who is deathly needle-phobic and highly claustrophobic, it was the stuff of nightmares. She sat in her chair of torture, queasy and weak, for nearly 12 hours. A bed pan and a water-filled Dixie cup negated any need to leave (or run away). The I.V. drew her blood out of one arm and ran it through an apheresis machine — a medical apparatus calibrated to thresh and reap the healthy stem cells that would treat her brother. Remaining blood products were reintroduced into Karen via another I.V. in her opposite arm.

A petite woman, Karen looked frail as she shivered in a contorted fetal position under a pile of hospital blankets. Her parents were by her side. Worry for both of their children weighed heavily on their faces. Determined as a petulant sister, Karen persevered and the transplant commenced.

On February 18, 2003, Matt was given a second chance of life through the graciousness of his sister and his brilliant team of providers at the City of Hope. In August of 2008, we unexpectedly lost him due to complications that even his stubbornness couldn’t overcome. That span of time was a bonus we never would have had without Karen.

What can I say to a woman who performed such an unselfish act of lovingkindness? This deserves more than a mere drop of appreciation. It overflows any bucket of gratitude. It exceeds the capacity of all vats of gratefulness.

Thank you for giving our family 5 1/2 more years with Matt.

Thank you for granting me 66 additional months with my husband.

Thank you for bestowing 2012 extra days with their father upon my sons.

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Karen, me, Matt, and our two sons-Albert & Nicholas-at the 2004 City of Hope Celebration of Life Reunion

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To learn more on how you can bestow the gift of life to a patient in need, check out the National Marrow Donor Program at BeTheMatch.org.

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The Nurse With Kind Eyes

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There are moments in your life that are seared in your recollection. Even though some of the finer details may fade with time, your heart is permanently branded with the memory. This is the story of one of those encounters.

In early 2003, my husband, Matt, underwent a stem cell transplant to eradicate the mutant white blood cells coursing through his veins. AKA – leukemia. For those who are blissfully unaware of the process, let me give provide you with a brief timeline:

  • What you don’t know will hurt you: The presentation of the 150+ page quick-reference guide describing the ins and outs of a transplant.
  • Getting to know you: Test after test after test to prepare the candidate for the procedure; including, but by no means limited to: multiple scans, blood work, full-body measurements, and psychological evaluations.
  • End of the world as you know it:  A combination of total body irradiation and chemotherapy to exterminate the diseased bone marrow. The patient’s native immune system is systematically obliterated.
  • Knowing what’s good for you: Harvesting and transplanting of the donor’s stem cells. In Matt’s case, his sister was the gracious benefactor.
  • Don’t know what hit you: While waiting for the donor cells to graft into the recipient’s immune system, the patient is extremely vulnerable to life-threatening infections. He or she is moved to an isolation room for protection. My story takes place during this precarious time.
  • Knowing whether to laugh or cry: Matt was given a 60 percent chance of not making it through the ordeal. It took eight weeks to see if he would overcome the odds.
Matt - One of his first days in the hospital

Matt – One of his first days in the hospital

During Matt’s entire hospital stay, he was never left alone. I would arrive each morning by 6:30 to catch his doctor on his early rounds. One or both of his parents would come each evening to relieve me and spend the night. The nurses at his facility were some of the best in their field, but with an entire ward of critical patients, they were stretched thin. Our devoted trio strove to pick up some of the slack. There was always someone there to hold Matt’s hand, fetch the vomit bucket, or help him to the bathroom.

The days in isolation were some of the darkest. The patient feels like they are dying (quite frankly, they are) and, at their lowest point, begs you to let them. All traces of their original bone marrow – the production locale of blood cells – have been annihilated. This grueling prep must be completed in order for the donor stem cells to seize control.

It’s the medical equivalent of a hostile takeover.

Blood cell counts are done repeatedly to gauge progress. White blood cell (WBC) counts for healthy individuals typically run from 5,000-10,000. A stem cell transplant patient begins isolation with WBCs in the single digits. Waiting for the new cells to take root and multiply is like trying to make an industrial vat boil using only a birthday candle. Slow and tedious, you are constantly worried the candle might burn itself out before the water even reaches a simmer.

Previously, I would quickly grab a light lunch to eat back in Matt’s room. Outside food, however, was not allowed in the isolation wards. Stubbornly glued to Matt’s bedside during this perilous phase, I was skipping nearly every meal. When this absence of nourishment was combined with my lack of sleep and constant worry, I was in danger of needing my own hospital bed.

Whenever you spend any length of time in a medical facility, it doesn’t take long to know much of the nursing staff on a first-name basis. Most of them will take care of your loved one up to a week at a stretch. There are a few, however, that only appear for a day or two. These fleeting engagements can prevent you from ever learning the names of these particular providers of mercy. Such is the case of the nurse with kind eyes.

She came in one morning, introduced herself (again, can’t recall her name), and tended to Matt. She popped back in each hour just like every other nurse had been doing for the past week. After about hour five, she asked if I was going to lunch. “No,” I replied, “I’m afraid to leave.” The nurse look a little concerned, but nodded as she left. I had been asked that question many a time and thought nothing of it.

An hour or so later, she returned, a small paperback book in her hands. “Go eat. You need your strength,” she instructed. “I’m taking my lunch in here.”

“He won’t be alone.”

She was of Asian descent and her gaze was sympathetic. Beyond that, I am unable to recall her appearance. Nevertheless, I will never forget the effect she had upon me. My mind had been hissing with incessant anxiety. In the short amount of time it took to reach the cafeteria, I was able to settle my fears down to a steady purr. The kind-eyed nurse took on my “burden” for less than an hour, just long enough to rejuvenate my stamina for the weeks and months that lied ahead. Her act of compassion still resonates more than a decade later.


This essay is the second installment in my Bucket List of Gratitude. Check out my inaugural piece to learn more about my goal to recognize the not-so-random acts of kindness that have impacted my life.

Surviving Guilt

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One year ago today, after seven long weeks, I completed my radiation treatment. The twenty-something, male radiology tech I had daily bared my breasts and unshaven armpits to presented me with a certificate to honor my “courage and perseverance.” He hugged me goodbye while his smile sweetly said, “Don’t come back again.”

So now, twelve months later, I carry this sense of guilt that I can’t seem to shake. It haunts me in the wee hours of the night and chastens me at random moments throughout the day.

It feels like my dirty, little secret.

I have a compulsion to analyze everything; to know all the “whats” and “whys.” Consequently, I obsess over this dilemma. I’ve told no one, for who would understand my predicament? Worse yet, someone might respond, “Why yes, you should be guilt-ridden. You should be remorseful, embarrassed, and mortified you ungrateful b*+%#!”

In reality, I feel my diagnosis wasn’t devastating enough. I had an easy cancer, as cancers go. Caught very early, no mastectomy or chemo was needed. I don’t feel worthy to be a member of the pink ribbon club after witnessing the cataclysmic effects of a real, true cancer. My husband fought through leukemia and the impact of its treatment for almost seven years. He combatted this fierce challenger for control each and every one of those 2,539 days. I was the anguished observer and cheerleader, but I couldn’t stop the war. Finally, his body put up the white flag and he was gone. My four-month battle with the disease is insignificant in comparison.

I will at no time, ever, on any occasion, be able to repay all those who offered support through every test, appointment, surgery and treatment. I was cherished. Who was I to deserve this outpouring? I’m ashamed to admit that this self-debasement immobilizes me. Insecurities halt my desire to pay it forward — I would like to bring over a home-cooked meal (My cooking skills now suck.) Maybe dropped by unannounced, flowers in hand. (I’d be intruding.) — I guess some teenage angst stays with you forever.

Bouts of callousness and impatience engulf me. Trite memes bombard my Facebook page — Hit “like” if you want to cure cancer. Ignore, if you don’t — and make me want to scream. The constant pleas to “share” this pic or be faced with possible misfortunes are the new chain letter. These manipulations will do none of the things they promise or threaten, yet why do I judge? Why do they bother me so?

In the past, I volunteered as much as I could. I poured myself into these endeavors for they gave me a sense of purpose, a distraction from personal reflection. Now that time has ended and I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under me. Flat on my ass, I’m at a loss as to what to do next.

Some might say I am spent; I’ve given enough and I need some “me” time. Possibly, but I am uncomfortable with that assessment. It seems selfish. I am unsure why I am writing this and doubt I will hit the ominous “Publish” button taunting me. How can I admit publicly that I feel stagnant and full of excuses? To do so would reveal the scarlet letter that I have kept hidden, yet shamefully nurtured. The thought of it constricts my chest like a vice and I can barely breathe.

I take slow, deliberate breaths and wonder if declaration is the answer. Do I need to bare my soul, as I did my breasts, for treatment to begin? Does the secret need to be exposed in order to be eradicated? Will this confession radiate to my core and dissect the guilt that has invaded?

Perhaps that’s my real, true, war for survival.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com