"Jimmy and I first met in February 2012 during my last semester of undergrad at Wittenberg University. He was finishing his Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the University of Dayton and doing a rotation in Wittenberg's athletic training room where I worked as a student athletic trainer. Shortly thereafter Jimmy moved to Chicago for a few months to finish his last clinical rotation. We kept in touch over the phone, and he drove back to Springfield to take me to dinner. During this time I had been applying for Master of Public Health programs, including one at the George Washington University in Washington DC. I was accepted into the program and moved to DC in August 2012. Jimmy and I agreed to continue our relationship long distance. After about a year of being being apart, Jimmy moved to the DC area in September 2013. We started shopping for engagement rings. However, during this time I started feeling extremely fatigued and lost some weight. I had been seeing several doctors for a few months, and I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. The doctors thought after a round of corticosteroids the "Crohn's flare" would calm down, but I didn't get any better and my hemoglobin levels fell. They recommended doing a bone marrow biopsy to see what was causing my blood counts to be low. The hematologist suggested that the worst case scenario would be that I had a pre-cancer, but expected it to be nothing serious. I scheduled the bone marrow biopsy for the Monday I returned to DC from Thanksgiving with my family in Ohio. I was extremely nervous about the biopsy. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was very wrong with my body. I held back tears as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" played on the radio when Jimmy and I were driving back to DC. To this day I still can't listen to that song without getting upset. Jimmy came with me to the biopsy on Monday. The next day the doctor called me in the afternoon and said, "I'm really surprised to tell you this news, but you have acute myeloid leukemia and need to start chemotherapy tomorrow." My mind blanked. I was in complete shock and utterly devastated. The next few days were a blur of tests, crying and a lot of praying. It was arranged for me to return home to receive treatment in Columbus, Ohio at The James Cancer Center. The James is a world class cancer center, and I would be close to home where I could receive the support of family and friends as a I went through treatment.
My mom flew to DC the day after my diagnosis, and we packed up as much as we could of my apartment into my tiny Ford Escort and drove back to Columbus. I was admitted to The James just three days after the diagnosis to start an intensive round of inpatient chemotherapy. Jimmy stayed behind in DC for a week to finish his work contract, and then packed the rest of his things and drove back to Ohio to be by my side during treatment. There were many emotions during this time - fear if I would live, grief for the loss of my health and freedom of my youth, and guilt for putting Jimmy in the situation. I told him that he didn't sign up for this journey, and that he could leave if he wanted. He was adamant that he wanted to be by my side. He didn't miss a day visiting me at the hospital. He shaved my head for me, held my hand, and scheduled "dates" in the hospital where we watched movies together. During my first round of inpatient chemotherapy, which was about 30 days, my oncologist told me that one of mutations causing my cancer put me at a high risk for relapse, and that I would need a bone marrow transplant.
The first option for transplant was to test my little sister, Lindsay, to see if she was a match. However, she was only a 50 percent match. From there my oncologist looked in the national and international bone marrow donor registry. Also, Jimmy and many of my friends signed up through Be the Match to see if they could be a donor, but none of them were a match. After a few months of searching, more rounds of inpatient chemotherapy, and hospitalizations for complications, the transplant team identified four preliminary matches, three of which responded. In the waiting room during one of my follow up appointments the transplant coordinator approached me and said that they found a donor for me in Israel. I felt relieved and so grateful for answered prayers. I knew the transplant and recovery would be challenging, but I was eager to be done with treatment.
In April 2014 I was admitted to the bone marrow transplant unit at The James and began intensive chemotherapy to wipe out all my existing bone marrow before I received the new marrow. I received the new marrow on May 2nd, 2014, and I knew little of my donor other than he was 23 years old, living in Israel and we shared the same blood type. Privacy rules required any identifying information about the donor and myself to remain unknown for a year following the transplant. The transplant and recovery process was long and painful at times. I remember little of my stay at The James for the transplant due to the IV morphine I received for the pain. Follow my release from the hospital I developed a post-transplant complication, called graft versus host disease (GvHD), in which the new immune system in the bone marrow recognized my body as a foreign object and started attacking it. The GvHD specifically affected my gastrointestinal tract, and I continued to lose weight at the concern of my doctors. They prescribed me high-dose steroids to reduce the inflammation.
I think people commonly believe that once cancer treatment is over that everything is okay. For me, though, and many other survivors, recovery is just as long, if not longer, and emotionally painful as the diagnosis and treatment phases. I was constantly worried that the leukemia was going to return; only 20 percent of people with acute myeloid leukemia survive fiver years after diagnosis, even if they received a transplant. I wanted to feel and look like my old self again, but my hair didn't start to grow back for a year and the steroids caused a lot of bloating. I was tired all the time and had memory issues or "chemo brain" from the chemotherapy. I was often frustrated, and sometimes I still get frustrated, adjusting to my "new normal." All throughout this time Jimmy was immeasurably patient with me. He often sacrificed his own self-care to take care of me.
Six months after the transplant in December 2014 we took a trip to Chicago to see Justin Timberlake in concert. While we were there we went out to dinner at a small Italian restaurant and then walked to Buckingham Fountain, where Jimmy got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. I was so happy to plan the rest of our life together. Planing the wedding was also a happy distraction from all my medical issues. I wanted to feel more "normal" at the time of the wedding, so we planned it for April 30th, 2016.
During the planning period in September 2015 I was able to get in contact with my donor, Jeka Galinsky. I wrote to him how thankful Jimmy and I were for his donation, and how I believed his donation was an answer to prayers. I was eager to meet Jeka, but knew the journey from Israel was long and expensive. However, at the suggestion of two generous family members, we invited Jeka to the wedding and they paid for his flight. I was very nervous to meet him. It was felt odd to have such a connection to someone I had never met. Jeka flew in five days before the wedding and was there for the celebrations; we even shared a dance at the reception. We've kept in touch over the last year, and he is coming back to visit in August. I'm sure we will keep in touch and be friends for years to come.
Jimmy and I are forever thankful for Jeka's donation, and the chance we've been given to build our lives and grow old together. If you're interested in saving someone's life and being a bone marrow donor, visit Be the Match (bethematch.org), and sign up for a cheek swab kit, which they will send in the mail. It's that simple!"