When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: You Haven’t.
Ten years ago, we thought my mom had exhausted all possibilities in her fight against Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia (CLL). For nearly ten years prior to that, she had gone through various rounds of treatments to rid herself of an incurable type of cancer, which usually doesn’t affect people until their in their 80s (and living another 5-10 years is a perfectly acceptable timespan). At the time of diagnosis, she was in her 40s. I blame the fact that we lived near the Rocky Flats Plant, a nuclear weapons production facility, but that’s a conversation that I will save for another day and another rant.
There came a point during the course of my mother’s treatment when her medical team determined they had expended all options to mitigate the disease and the only option was a stem-cell transplant (what you would probably know better as a bone-marrow transplant). Next steps were to find a matching donor – someone with the same DNA markers of her immune system which needed to align with my mom’s. Likely candidates include siblings, but hers’ did not. Enter Miracle #1, a donor with 10-out-of-10 matching markers – someone young and eager to be of service.
Her transplant date was set for December 2006. Knowing the severe and life-threatening complications she faced, we gathered as a family on Thanksgiving to wrap her in love and send her off to MD Anderson with as many prayers as we could say in those few short weeks. But, the transplant was delayed, not once but twice, because she was retaining fluid and her heart began to fail. No-one was able to determine why she took a turn for the worse, the medical team was at a loss, and after the 2nd delay, her transplant physician said that they had done all they could, but she was not healthy enough to survive a transplant. It was time to go home, they told us.
Enter Miracle #2, my mother’s uncompromising and warrior-like spirit. If anyone wonders where my stubborn streak comes from, and you think it couldn’t possibly be from my sweet, compassionate mother, let me assure you – you are dead wrong. Tell my mom she can’t do something, I double-dog-dare you. She was not done, she was not going home, something in her rose up, in defiance of fate, and vowed she would be there to see her children grow up, to become a grandmother, to see the world, and to live. We both made a vow that her defiance would not be in vain. As her advocate, I ripped the medical team a new a$$hole to find out why my mom had suddenly accumulated 60-lbs of water weight and why she suddenly had developed congestive heart failure when her heart had been healthy her whole life.
Turns out, she was having an undocumented type of allergic reaction to sulfa, and she showed dramatic improvement within 48-hours of switching her medications. We then worked for the next 3-months to help her build back the strength she had lost, so that when we walked back into the transplant physician’s office in late March 2007, he said she was ready. You would have thought we won the lottery, and in a way, I think we did. Odds were stacked against her in every way, but on April 4, 2007, she received a new lease on life. The road to recovery was not easy, mind you. Post transplant recovery was full of frightening twists and turns, but the warrior put her chin down and dug her heals in. Every day, we meditated on the healing power within her, on the strength she had to endure, and on the ability to absorb the love that surrounded her on this journey.
Enter Miracle #3, a decade has gone by and today we celebrate what transplant patients often refer to as her re-birthday. It is hard to describe the profound ways in which this process has affected me, or the gratitude that I hold for the selfless act of her donor (whom we have had the amazing opportunity to meet and get to know), but seeing those you love go through something, rather than around it, evolves your view of the world. Every time I have an ache, or a pain, or want to complain, I remember, my mom turns 10 today.