Note: This was originally posted as a guest blog on November 24th, 2009, so I've added date references in places for proper context. This is the seven year anniversary of Mom's transplant, so for lucky #7, I wanted to repost it. :)
Fall has always been my favorite season of the year, the colors,
coolness in the air, what's not to love? It was Dad's fave as well,
which made it especially difficult when he passed away unexpectedly at
61 in late October, six [twelve] years ago. Every Thanksgiving since then has
been bittersweet, with happy reminiscences comingled with the memories of
the raw shock of that first holiday season without him.
A year ago , my remaining parent was literally fighting for her
life. She had been diagnosed with leukemia in May, fought a losing
battle with chemotherapy over the summer, and nothing was helping to
stem the advance of the cancer in her blood and bone marrow. With the
classification that she fell into, her prognosis at the time of
diagnosis was less than a year.
Then a miracle happened...her doctor was able to convince the insurance
company to approve a bone marrow transplant despite her age (63) being
beyond their normal range. That was followed closely by a second
miracle...she didn't have to wait for a donor match. Her brother, who
lived 4 miles away from her and was still in good health at 65, tested
to be a perfect match for donation. Sibling donations have the highest
success rate, and we crossed our fingers that Mom could hold out long
enough to stabilize for and undergo the god-awful pre-procedure chemo
So on November 25th last year, she was given the transplant, and we
waited while her body fought both the cancer and the 'invading' new bone
marrow cells. That Thanksgiving was filled with worry and hope.
As December began, she started slipping away. Her counts were proceeding
'normally', but she was becoming delirious and eventually unresponsive.
An unexpected allergic reaction to her anti-rejection medication sent
her into a coma due to fluid buildup in the brain called PRES syndrome.
2000 miles away, I could only wait for news. She was moved to intensive
care and the second week of December I received a call needing
permission to place her on a ventilator as a respiratory infection set
At that point I could wait no longer, and scheduled my flight to South
Dakota. I hadn't seen her since August, and barely recognized her; her
hair was gone, she was 30 pounds lighter, and all the medical support
equipment... I walked into her empty house alone that night and it was
the strangest sensation, as if she were already gone.
I sat by her bed for nearly a week with no response. I'd had the
irrational thought that once there, she'd hear my voice and open her
eyes, but that only happens in fiction I suppose. I lotioned her feet,
tried to keep her bloody tears from drying on, and tried to talk. It was
hard to know what to say, again where the movies and fiction have it
wrong. Her hand was warm but dead in mine. During this time, her only
movements were occasional gagging motions, and I asked, begged, pleaded,
and finally demanded they remove the breathing tube. Their
response was that she'd met every protocol except one; she had to be
responsive before removal.
I was stymied by ICU staff and resp therapists at every turn until one
day I finally spoke to the Pulminologist on the phone and reminded him
that she's been unresponsive for days before insertion. After
securing my permission to reinsert if she went south, he approved the
removal, much to the dismay of the resp therapist who'd smugly handed me
the phone in the first place, sure that the doc would support her
instead of me.
She and the ICU nurse went through the shut-down and pulling of the
tube. It was awful watching my mom's body fighting and gagging. But it
was finally out. Then her eyes opened...
After weeks in a coma, when that tube came out, she just...woke up. The
nurse asked if she knew who I was, and she said in a raspy, but clearly
disgusted voice, "Of course! That's my daughter." Oh, that's my mama.
You tell 'em, Mom.
While she'd been laying there, her body had been accepting the
transplant. They moved her back up to oncology the next morning (that
was a jolt, coming into her ICU bay and having it be empty!), and I flew
home the day after, on Christmas Eve, to be with my girls for the
holiday. And only two weeks later, she went home. Her mom, my grandma,
who was 87, moved out to the farm to spend the rest of the SD winter
with her and take care of her 'little girl' during her recovery.
Tomorrow is the one [seven] year anniversary of her transplant, and she is 100%
donor cells and cancer-free. Her vision is still recovering, so she
can't read...a huge blow for the person I inherited my bookishness from.
[She's able to read again now!] And her hair has been slow to start growing again. But she is back
driving again and doing for herself. Moreover, she's still herself,
still Mom, still Mimi to my two girls and my brother's new baby boy,
something that I almost gave up hope on during my vigil last winter.
Back 'round to Thanksgiving again, I am so thankful that my small family
is not one person less this year. We had every reason to expect that
she could be gone by now, but a few miracles later and I have something
very real and concrete to be thankful for...my mom's future.
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