Not long before we headed up to Seattle, my wife, Sarah and her mother, Pam, organized an emergency family meeting. Our whole lives were about to turn upside down, so they figured we should get everyone on board with what was about to happen. I have to admit, though, that I was strongly against it. Maybe “strongly” is the wrong word, actually. I was adamantly, almost violently opposed. On the outside I was cool, composed and collected, but on the inside I felt that in the end only God would be with us. This is not a faith statement. This was because I was bitter, hurting and broken. I felt people were coming to ogle at us like we were some side show, moan and murmur their condolences, then go back to their normal lives, grateful they weren’t us. And then we’d be forgotten, apart from an occasional “Praying for you, brother.” So what was the point of giving them their show?
We had the meeting regardless. I was overwhelmed. All-in-all it wasn’t a huge group: maybe twenty people total. But the level of love and support people showed us was incredible. Out of that meeting came a framework that would support us over all the months that were to follow. And, within two weeks of that meeting, one couple had said they wanted to donate to support our kids to the tune of $1,000 a month, and one man told us he wanted to give us the money to pay for our mortgage for the four months I would be unable to work. But this was just the beginning.
As I mentioned previously, on October 9th Sarah and I drove up to Seattle, as prepared as we could be for the months that were to come. We checked in at the room that would serve as our apartment for however long, and then we went to meet our new medical team at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
We met our nurse, Jen, and Dr. Ajay Gopal. We learned some more about the treatment I would be undergoing, were told of the potential experimental treatments I might be eligible for, and realized that the nurses we had talked to on the phone had greatly overemphasized our need to be staying at Seattle right then. Assuming we were willing to commute pretty much daily (including weekends) between Tacoma and Seattle, we would be able to stay at home — at least for the time being. Since the apartment/room was $100 a night and our girls were in Tacoma, that was a pretty easy choice. But it turned out to be lucky we were there for a few days in any case.
I had been getting daily shots to boost my stem cell production into overdrive. This was all well and good as long as I was taking a Claritin every day. If I stopped, though, my body would feel the wrath of insane stem cell overpopulation. We were having appointments non-stop those first couple days from morning to evening. And it was on day two that I didn’t take the Claritin.
I started feeling it mid-morning. It was a throbbing in my tailbone and between my shoulder blades. It felt a bit like when your back is really out, but with this interesting pulsing sensation accompanying it. However, by mid-afternoon the pain was staggering. I could barely walk. I couldn’t sit. I grit my teeth and bore it through each of our consecutive appointments, and then when we were done I stumbled into the shuttle that would take us back to our room. It wasn’t even a pain that I could get used to. It pulsed with the beat of my heart, in and out, in and out; intense, and then cataclysmic.
Somehow I managed to get into the room and collapse on the bed. And that’s all I could do. Sarah sat down beside me, though, and we both began to pray. We prayed for the pain to leave, and we prayed that I would be filled with the peace of the Holy Spirit. And then, almost exactly one minute after we started, an amazing thing happened. The pain drained away, leaving only a whisper of its previous screaming. My body relaxed. And I was overwhelmed by peace. I took the Claritin I had missed, rolled over, and slept for several hours. The last of the pain vanished, and it didn’t come back.
The following Monday we had our next surprise. My body was still recovering from my last chemo, which had been only a few days prior. It was anticipated that I would not be ready to harvest stem cells for another week or two. However, my blood was drawn on Sunday, and when we went in on Monday they told me on their metric I had skyrocketed from a 2.5 to an 8.6. So they performed another test on me, to see how many stem cells I had. I needed at least 10 million, since they were shooting to take 5 million. My test returned: my body contained 89 million stem cells.
Sarah and I went down a few floors and they hooked me up to a machine straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien. It would suck out just about every cell of blood from my body, whirl it around in a centrifuge, pull the stem cells away and up into a little bag, and then pop the remaining cells (assumedly dizzy and harried) back into my body. I imagine the cells looked something like the illustration included here.
It was not uncommon for people to need several days of this in order to get all of the 5 million cells required for the transplant, though they were fairly confident it would only take one day for me. They were right. When all of my harvested cells were counted, I had given them 30.8 million. (Author’s aside: as I wrote this I saw a note I’d written that I might have been wrong on these numbers. But if I was, the numbers were low. Way low.)
So a week ahead of schedule and 25 million stem cells up, we moved forward with the battery of tests. When all was said and done, it looked like we were on trajectory to be done with everything and home by Christmas. But then another monkey wrench was thrown into the mix: I had been accepted into an experimental study. Which was great. But the first open slot was partway through December. Which meant that, rather than being home for Christmas, it was looking like we were going to spend Christ’s birthday in the hospital. Assuming, of course, that we said, “yes.”
To be continued!