On September 30, 2004 I got a second chance to beat a disease that had marked me for dead one year earlier. It marked a new beginning physically and mentally for me. The question initially was would I survive the transformation?
I received a bone marrow transplant from and unrelated donor at about 2 pm on September 30th of 2004. As I lied on my hospital bed with clear plastic walls, I could see the nurses bringing in a small cooler, the kind I'd put my beer in. I was expecting to see a large bag of blood, which is what bone marrow is supposed to look like, but instead they took out a significantly small bag (Slightly smaller then a transfusion bag). I was worried that it wouldn't be enough but my doctor assured me it would be. He would go on to explain that my donor had a different blood type than mine (I was B+ and He was A+) so they had to remove 95% of the red cells in the initial transfusion but in time it would grow back normally and without any complications. So that explained the small bag. A bone marrow transplant requires the least amount of surgery of most transplants. Only a catheter in your upper chest and a severe dosage of chemotherapy and radiation. I was a cancer patient but I didn't have cancer. I had Severe Aplastic Anemia, a blood disorder, that was triggered by the immune system(sometimes through chemical exposure or idiopathically) in which the final sum is bone marrow failure. In other words, I couldn't make blood anymore and I could only survive with regular blood and platelet transfusions. They had treatments for this that involved getting blasted with horse and rabbit antibodies that would wipe out those t-cells in the immune system and hopefully reprogram them into not attacking my stem cells. It's a kind of rebooting that works maybe 50% of the time and doesn't cure you, so it can happen again at anytime in your life. This treatment failed twice for me and left me with no choice but to have to have to find a way of getting a risky and potentially fatal transplant, as long as I had a perfect match. My brother was not a match so I had to rely on the NMDP(National Marrow Donor Program). They luckily matched me perfectly with a 34 year old 10 of 10 match. The matching is more about tissue typing then blood typing. It was always a relief that there was this ace card always waiting for me but I had lingering fears of how a transplanted immune system would work in my body. That's the key. Bone marrow transplants are dangerous because the body is so susceptible to infection and the newly transplanted marrow, even perfectly matched, has the danger of a new immune system that could flat out kill you or disable your body from ever feeling healthy again. Serious consequences for me to think about and I was about to turn 35 years old. The one thing I new for sure was I was going to die if I didn't do it.
You may ask why would someone who didn't have cancer need to get chemo and radiation before the transplant? Even though Aplastic Anemia is an emptying of your marrow cells they need to make sure you completely empty of any kind of stem cell to allow the donor stem cells to have full reign... kind of like selling a house to a new family(Ha!) In many cases when cancer patients get chemo doctors have to be careful with dosages and scheduled infusions as to not damage the marrow of the patient. In my case they are trying to damage it to the fullest extent. Lucky for me, I got 5 straight days of this lethal chemo that I'll never forget, not to mention the previous 3 days of radiation on a gurney. Now I understood why some don't survive the preconditioning. It's like they're making you Lazarus, then bring you back to life. They gave me one day of rest following my preconditioning before finally getting the transplant, which is given to you like a blood transfusion. Miraculous really, It somehow knows to go into the bones from your bloodstream and start nesting. That's when the immune system watch began. The doctors loaded me up round the clock with immune suppression meds in measured doses. The strategy: as the immune system grows keep a lid on it and manipulate it into believing it's in it's own body. This was only the beginning - they never felt your out of the woods, in regards to rejection, until a year out and then your immune system had to mature. It was almost like having an infants immune system. From the day I received the transplant to the day I registered my white count going up from .002 to .7, it was 6 days. I made it out of the hospital in 3 weeks and I never got another transfusion since. I was at normal blood counts within 2 months. But more importantly for me I was cured.
The next big step after this was to finally get to meet my donor. Donor's Identities are keep anonymous until a year. I was allowed one letter exchange with him - no names or addresses. They only thing the NMDP would tell you was the age and sex of the donor. So I wrote to him, as I waited for my white count to rise, letting him know how incredible I thought he was to be so generous to try to save my life, a life he didn't even know. I wrote, that I look forward to the day we could meet and become friends. I received a reply letter some weeks later where he thanked me for my letter and how much he wished that I'd do well. We eventually meet on October 20th of 2006 in an arranged dinner by the NMDP in El Paso, Texas. There I meet Hector and his family. Hector was from Chihuahua, Mexico and drove 8 hours to Dallas, Texas to donate a portion of his marrow to insure my survival. It's the most incredible gift I've ever received and Hector turned out to be everything I thought he would be - an INCREDIBLE HUMAN BEING. Thank you Hector, I love you man - and thank you NMDP, Mt Sinai and AAMDSIF for all of your help.
This painting was a donation to the AAMDSIF ( Aplastic Anemia, Myelodysplastic Syndrome, International Foundation) on my part. I wanted to put a face on the numerous people who donated blood all over. The blood that keep me alive for a full year till my transplant. All anonymous donors who probably had no idea of the good it provided to people like me.