This Mother’s Day, just like last, I want to recognize a Mom in my life who inspires me to be a better Mom. There are so many ordinary women doing extraordinary things in ways that often go unacknowledged as mothers. We laud the accomplishments of women in the workplace, but, equally important are the sacrifices of the women who choose to stay home and raise the future members of our society with love and devotion. Against the grain. And, against the odds. Like Michelle.
Michelle’s Story. Part I of II: Michelle had dreamed of becoming a mother her entire life. It was all she ever wanted to do. It was her calling. And she was ready to answer her calling when she met and married Ryan while they were both still college students at the University of New Orleans. They had dated for just four months. Michelle was 21, Ryan 19. A few months into their marriage, Michelle started to feel fatigued. A stop in at the campus health clinic where she received a blood test resulted in an unexpected phone call from the doctor that same evening. He was sending her to see a Hematologist first thing in the morning. Her blood test showed that her hemoglobin was dangerously low, at a level where her organs could fail at any time. The next morning, she had her first bone marrow biopsy.
Michelle was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, or preleukemia, which meant she had no healthy blood cells. For the next two years, she underwent numerous blood and platelet transfusions, had her gall bladder removed and suffered endless infections because her body had become so weak. Time was running out for Michelle and her doctors knew it. Bone marrow transplants were still experimental at that time and none were being performed in the New Orleans area. Michelle was sent to Baylor University Hospital in Dallas to take part in an experimental bone marrow transplant program. The search was now on to find a donor.
After testing everyone in Michelle’s family, there were no matches. The odds today of being matched to a donor in the National Bone Marrow Registry are 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 100,000. But, incredibly, a match came up for Michelle at a time when even fewer people were registered. Unlike then, becoming registered today requires nothing more than a simple cheek swab. And, donating can be as easy as donating blood to collect the stem cells. (Join the Be the Match Registry and you could be the one to save a life.)
Michelle was moved into a facility in Dallas for treatment. At this same time, Ryan, an Engineering major who was now a senior at the University of New Orleans and top of his class, was recruited by the Army Corps of Engineers for an internship. That internship would provide the necessary insurance, working under federal employee guidelines to pay for the experimental treatment that could save Michelle’s life. Those guidelines don’t permit denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions. Without the internship, Michelle would be uninsurable and Ryan would lose his young bride to Cancer.
Ryan would now have to work 20 hours a week at his internship, carry a full course load in school and maintain his high G.P.A. to keep the internship and his scholarship. All the while his wife is about to undergo an untested and possibly life-saving transplant a state away. No sweat.
Treatment began with two days of chemotherapy and three days of full-body radiation before receiving her donor’s bone marrow. Michelle spent the next month fighting infections and on anti-rejection meds as her body tried to reject the donated marrow. She suffered from fevers, rashes, constant nausea and most painful, Mucositis which left her unable to swallow for ten days. But, in the end and against the odds, the transplant was a success!
While Ryan maintained his grueling work and class schedule, Michelle’s mother stayed with her at the hospital the entire 35 days. Their insurance paid for Michelle and her mother to be moved into an apartment for daily outpatient care for two months after that, and for Ryan to be able to fly out for visits two weekends a month. After three months, Ryan was finally able to bring Michelle home.
The fight didn’t end there. It would be a year and a half before Michelle would start to feel “normal” again. She would need constant care and supervision at home because of the risk of infection with her fragile immune system. The survival rate after transplant is 60% before the end of the first year. Michelle would have ten more bone marrow biopsies during the course of the next few years to confirm that the disease hadn’t returned. It never did.
Michelle was thankful to be alive. But, what of her dream? Would she ever become a mother? Next Sunday, read how Michelle and Ryan’s desire to become parents would not be impeded by two of the most tragic events in American history: 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.