Good news! Tom made it through the first critical 100 days post-transplant and his bone marrow biopsy showed that his leukemia is in remission. The donor stem cells have begun to make new blood cells, and Tom now has a healthy level of platelets and hemoglobin.
As often happens, the donated immune system is over-exuberantly attacking the host (graft versus host reaction), mistaking friend for foe. Tom’s doctor at the Bone Marrow Transplant program has been on top of this, prescribing medications to prevent the GvH effects from becoming dangerous. These medications have kept Tom’s white blood cells (the infection-fighters) very low. But he’s just been approved for a specialized medication that should have fewer side effects and will hopefully allow his white blood cell count return to a healthier level.
Stem cell transplants are extremely difficult to endure but if successful, they really are a miracle. During the ten months that my brother has battled leukemia with the help of incredibly dedicated doctors and nurses and other healthcare workers, I’ve learned that there are hundreds of Canadians receiving stem cell transplants at any given time, or waiting for a donor. If you are between 17 and 35 and Canadian, please sign up to be a donor on the general registry. It only takes a mouth swab. If you go to http://www.blood.ca and complete the application, they’ll mail you a swab. In the US, you can sign up until age 45, I believe.
If you’re interested in learning more about leukemia and stem cell transplants, I highly recommend Between Two Kingdoms, a memoir written by Suleika Jaouad, who survived leukemia at age 22. It’s a highly accurate portrait of undergoing and recovering from treatment for leukemia, and also, somehow, upbeat and engrossing. It is one of the best memoirs I’ve read in a while, perhaps because the author is also a poet and a New York Times columnist. From my reading, many of her treatments and experiences were similar to Tom’s, except a more sociable, non-pandemic version.
Tom, Melvin, Alan and I are looking forward to 2021 being much much better than 2020. Thank you so much to the many friends who reached out to my brother in various ways this past year, including through Facebook. Often, he wasn’t up to responding but I know your words and kindness meant a great deal. (He told me so.)
It’s beyond tough to face a life-threatening disease, and even more so in the near total isolation that Tom experienced in hospital because of COVID precautions. He’s not out of the woods entirely yet, but we are hoping that in a few months he’ll be immunized and so will the rest of us, and we’ll all be able to meet in person again.
Maureen (Tom’s sister)