Resilience in the Face of Illness

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Getting to be a lifesaver 

My dad has always been a happy person. One of the happiest, I would say. That is not to say I’ve never seen him cry, yell or frown—which is not to say that I have never seen him angry. I do have a vivid memory of the only time he ever yelled at me; I was eight years old and I rudely slammed a drawer in his office. To this day I only ever close drawers very slowly. 

He’s always been a “yes man” who never turned down an adventure, whether it be hiking in Arches National Park in the snow, biking over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or even ziplining in Hawaii, all despite his immense fear of heights. He always RSVPed yes to my sister’s (Alex) and my sports events and theatrical performances, even when he knew either we would lose or they’d be excruciatingly boring and he was incredibly busy. He even agreed to coach my middle school basketball team when, throughout my entire basketball career, I only scored three baskets (Three. In the entire six years that I played. Pathetic, I know). He never said no to the opportunity to go camping with me on the weekends when I was in elementary school, even in the 30-degree winter. He never denied my requests to come with him to Saturday basketball with his friends, despite children not being invited. He even always said yes to editing my atrocious essays throughout middle and high school (I will say it until the day I die, I am deeply sorry for subjecting him to that). 

After spending 21 years of my life watching him smile, listening to his endless lectures about how important grit and resilience are, hearing him rant about how crucial positive thinking is to the perpetuation of happiness and experiencing him yelling at me every weekend for still being in bed after one in the afternoon because “there’s a whole world of fun things out there to do just waiting for me,”

watching him cry on the phone telling my sister and me he was diagnosed with Leukemia was a bit of a shock. We knew going in that there was an issue, so it was not entirely a surprise, but it caused some cognitive dissonance to see such a bubbly, show tunes singing, excited-about-everything person be so worried and unsure. 

After doing a lot of research and bombarding my parents with questions, my sister and I discovered he had been diagnosed with FLT3 Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), which is a “particularly aggressive” form of Leukemia that is quite difficult to treat. First, I will admit there were some tears. My sister and I both went through a rapid-fire five stages of grief, minus the bargaining. 

On Nov. 22, 2022, the same day he was officially diagnosed, he started high-dose chemo. 

Watching the first round of chemo wreak havoc on Dad’s body was hard. I searched for a more eloquent word to describe how it felt, but no words in the dictionary came close to explaining it. It was just hard. From an outsider’s perspective (and probably from his perspective), he quickly seemed to develop every possible infection. He first contracted an infection in his stomach and subsequently another in his mouth. It felt like the whole process was happening in slow motion.

Pretty early on in the process, it became evident that Dad would need a stem cell transplant. Five of us were tested to potentially be donors. The testing itself to be a donor was not too invasive; it was just a blood test. My sister, my cousin and I were matched to be donors, and Johns Hopkins selected me. Nonetheless, it could have been Alex, and she and my cousins were incredibly brave for volunteering to be tested in the first place. She wanted to be his donor just as badly as I did, and for that, we all owe her a million thank-yous and immense respect. 

About a month later, we began pre-testing for the transplant process which consisted of a bunch of meetings with nurses and doctors and many blood tests and screenings. The testing did not go as well as we had anticipated, so we were a little bit worried about the actual transplant itself, but we were assured that all would be fine and that we had nothing to worry about. A big thank you to Johns Hopkins nurses for all being so reassuring and helpful when everything felt like it was going wrong.

On Mar. 12, 2023, I began giving myself the pre-transplant injections of filgrastim (Neupogen), which is a drug designed to increase the normally small number of stem cells in your blood. It has plenty of nasty side effects and was no walk on the beach, but the unkillable optimism of my Dad came in handy. He is much more persistent, smiley and encouraging than me, and never fails to cheer me on to help me keep going. Another big thank-you to my mom who learned how to do the shots with me and even did one of them for me, sat with me every single time I gave myself an injection, and stayed with me throughout the entire multi-hour transplant. She also took care of me the entire time and has been there throughout every second of Dad’s treatment process. She wins both Wife and Mother of the Year. 

On Mar. 16, 2023, at 8:00 a.m., we began the transplant process. Bright and early they “twilighted” me, inserted a central line into my neck, woke me back up, and began the six-hour process. They stocked me up on Tums to preserve my calcium levels, made sure I was hydrating and gave me tons of warm blankets so I wouldn’t be freezing while the machine cycled and separated my entire stock of blood through it seven different times (science is wild, right?!). They then, after completing the entire collection, removed the catheter (I was awake and un-medicated for that portion of the transplant… would not recommend that to my worst enemy…), and then sent me home to recover under the care of Mom. 

On Mar. 17, 2023 (we all wore green to the hospital, don’t worry), Dad began his side of the transplant. As a result, he is now in remission! 

In the end, the transplant was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done, but also the best decision I have ever made, and I would not change it even if offered millions of dollars (and that is saying something, since I have no money). Thank you, Dad, for instilling in me the courage it took to save your life. I guess all that hard work you put into being a family man paid off. Curse you for making me promise when I was little to always be your best friend. Thank you Mom for everything. You are a real-life superhero. Thank you to Alex and my cousins for being brave enough to even try. Thank you Johns Hopkins for helping save my dad.

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