Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Leukemia is a family affair

My brother Dan found a match.

I wrote over the weekend about Dan’s search for a bone marrow donor. Millions of people are on the donor registry, but very few have just the right qualities to match Dan’s metabolism.

Dan was diagnosed with leukemia just before the 2012 holidays. The holidays, it seems, are a dangerous time for the Shay family. I celebrated them by having a heart attack. My brother Dan celebrated them by going into the hospital for a gall bladder surgery that turned into a diagnosis for acute myeloid leukemia. Five of my other siblings spent Yuletide swabbing the inside of their cheeks and spending the swabs off to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Our sister Molly did not return a swab kit because the Italian post office was on strike, or maybe it was the railroads or the airlines.  Anyway, she finally located her kit at the P.O. and sent it off to Houston.

The first almost-perfect match for Dan was our sister Mary, who is the youngest. It’s better to have a match among family members, as the rejection rate is lower. Mary was excited to be the chosen one. My sister Maureen thought she was going to be the chosen one, as she and Dan have a lot in common.  But Maureen was not a match.

I was not tested. My recent heart attack and my advancing age left me out. Age, it seems, is not as big an obstacle as my medical condition. Donating marrow takes a toll on the body. The docs prefer to have donors between the ages of 18-44, although they will use those in the 45-60 range. Once you reach 60, though, the strain on the donor’s body is higher and the quality of marrow is lower. Since I’ve already had one heart attack, I could easily have another.

My sister Mary is afraid to fly. So, she drove from Tallahassee to Houston with Maureen and Dan. A few days after arrival, Mary went in for a battery of tests while Dan underwent another round of chemo. Complications arose. Not with Dan but with Mary. X-rays detected a spot on her right lung. More pictures were taken. The docs decided to do a biopsy. Results showed cancer. The docs decided to remove the middle lobe of Mary’s lung and the take a look at the lymph nodes while they were at it. Mary, of course, is stunned by this turn of events. People tell her that she’s lucky to be at MD Anderson, the best place in the world for cancer treatment. She agrees, but can’t help asking, “Why me?” She wonders why she’s the only one crying in a hospital filled with cancer patients from all over the globe. Her answer: “They knew they had cancer before they came here. I didn’t.”

Mary had cancer and Dan no longer had a donor, as current cancer patients are not good risks. Mary will be operated on at MD Anderson on May 28. Dan returned to Florida to find a new donor. Local fund-raisers and donor sign-ups were held for him in Daytona and Ormond Beach. News finally came last week that Dan had a 20-year-old donor that fit the bill.

Then came a surprise. The long-delayed kit from our sister Molly landed at MD Anderson. The preliminary test showed promise. When the final results came in, Molly was as good a match as Mary, although slightly older. Apparently, a 57-year-old sibling is a better prospect than a 20-year-old stranger.

There’s a catch. Molly is finishing up a stint as a lactation specialist at Aviano AFB in Italy. She’s been over there for more than a year. She likes her job and, on days off, is learning a lot about fine Italian wines and food. She has traveled to the Vatican and to Venice and Croatia. But she still needs to wrap things up before arrivederci. She’ll be back in the states in late May, make her donation and head back to her home in Tallahassee. She will have to rest up from jet lag and marrow lag.

Dan will receive his transplant of cells and will be in Houston recovering for 100-some days. His body will be vulnerable after the infusion of our sister’s cells. Infections can occur. I’ll probably fly down to see him for a week. I’ll be recuperating from surgery to implant an ICD which will keep my heart beating regularly – and prevent catastrophic heart failure. Just call it the rhythm method. I got rhythm, who could ask for anything more?

The rhythm method? That was my parents birth control process, which is one reason they had nine kids. But if they had used another more trustworthy method, Dan would not have all of these wonderful siblings and their transplant-friendly bone marrow. My wife Chris and I used to joke around with our son and daughter. When they were fighting, we’d caution them: “You may need a kidney someday.” We didn’t realize the truth in that statement.  You may need a kidney someday, or a batch of bone marrow. 


Mo said...

Very well written Mike! So proud of my big brother.

Susan Gertel said...

I love the way you tell the story. You must be the one most gifted with the Irish blarney! Our prayers are with the entire Shay clan.
Susan and Steven Gertel (friends of Molly and Jamie)

Michael Shay said...

Susan and Steven:

Always nice to meet friends of Molly and Jamie. Molly has her work cut out for her in Houston.

I seem to have more than my share of the Irish blarney. Or may it just seems that way since I write stuff down for the whole world to see.

Hope we can meet in person the next time I'm in Tallahassee.


Living Well in Tally said...

Oh the Shay kids....If I were reading this story in a novel, I would never get to sleep at night. I wish you guys were making this stuff up! Molly has always been one of my favorite people, now I have met Mo and Mary...I can only guess that the rest of you Shays are just as fabulous.

Thank you for sharing your family with us. We are lighting candles and lifting prayers for each of you.

Jen Taylor

Michael Shay said...


You're very kind, and obviously a great friend.

It's an odd tale, isn't it? We have no shortage of stories in our family, although I wish that this one wasn't true.

Thanks for the candles and prayers.