Aug 22, 2010
In high school, I was the typical American girl, living life to the fullest. I played tennis, volleyball, was class vice president and a National Merit Scholar before I graduated salutatorian of my senior class. I was getting ready to go off to college and took a job as a lifeguard at the neighborhood pool to pass the summer by. By the end of the summer, I started to feel tired all time and notice bruising on my legs and ribcage. I thought I was just a clumsy person who got injured all of the time. So I ignored it and went on with my life.
August rolled around and it was time to pack up my things and head off to college; normally an exciting time in a teen’s life. But I didn’t even have energy to load up my things into the car. Dad, being the doctor, he is, noticed that something wasn’t right. He asked me if I was OK, but I brushed him off and told him I was just a little tired from not getting enough sleep. This was my time to fly, and nothing was going to hold me back.
Fitting into a new life away at school as a 17 year old college freshman is hard enough, but it was even harder for me because I was so extremely fatigued. I had to stop midway on the stairs just to catch my breath. I had no appetite and could hardly force myself to eat anything. I knew I had lost a visible amount of weight going from a healthy 125 down to around 108 in just six weeks.
October 9, Columbus Day weekend, came and I was headed home for the first time since starting college. As soon as my mom laid eyes on me, the first thing she said was, “you’ve lost weight, you haven’t been eating enough have you?” After a hug, I told her I’d take my thing upstairs and come back down to talk. She said that Dad was actually off service today (a rare event) and would be back from the store soon. I was scared of what he would say.
As I started struggling up the stairs, I heard Dad’s car arrive in the driveway. When I got to the top, I started to feel dizzy and my vision started to go black. I passed out and obviously dropped my books and bag, which I’m guessing made a pretty loud noise against the hardwood floors. The next thing I remember is Dad carrying me down the stairs and calling for Mom to get some water. He laid me down on the couch as I started to regain consciousness. I was pale and weak, had swollen glands, my heart was racing, and I was covered in bruises. Dad only needed one look at me before he said we’re taking you to the hospital, now. He carried me to the car and got me to the hospital, not a minute too soon.
After a CBC, DBC, and a painful bone marrow biopsy, I was way beyond tired: I was exhausted. I was so lethargic I couldn’t even lift my head off the pillow. Dad, who is a doctor there, had been running in and out of my room for the past couple of hours trying to see what’s going on. Finally, it was time for the test results, my doctor came in asked for my parents to step out and speak with him for a minute. Now I knew something was really wrong. He wanted to tell them first because I was still a minor.
After a few minutes out, my parents and the doctor returned. I had never seen that expression on my dad’s face before; it was a look of agonizing worry. And I could tell by my mother’s red eyes that she had been crying but tried to wipe it away before she came in. I was prepared for something very serious. They told me I had leukemia. I was confused not knowing what it was. They explained it further and once I heard the word “cancer”, a daunting feeling rushed over my body and suddenly my whole situation changed, drastically.
Further testing showed it was acute lymphocytic leukemia. I had to start chemo immediately. As if the initial diagnosis weren’t bad enough, a spinal tap also showed that the ALL was advanced and had spread to my spinal cord and brain. I was started on several drugs; some of which I think were Oncovin, daunorubicin, Cytoxan, and prednisone. I also received spinal tap injections and radiation therapy to treat the leukemia in my brain and CSF. Those days were the some of the most painful days of my life. I was in the hospital for about six weeks before I finally got in remission. I thought it was finally coming to an end. Little did I know, my battle had just begun.
I continued receiving high doses of chemo and radiation (consolidation therapy) for the next few months as an outpatient. And because my case was considered high risk, they suggested a bone marrow transplant (BMT) to prevent relapse. There was a 35% chance that my brother Joshua would be a donor match. Lucky for me, it was a match; he just happened to be in that lucky percentage. I was admitted to the hospital and began a conditioning regimen to prepare my body for the BMT. It started by getting a central line inserted into my chest so that drugs and the transplant could be administered without dozens of pokes and IV lines. The extremely high doses of chemo and radiation succeeded in obliterating my immune system so my body wouldn’t reject the transplant. But living in an isolation room with restricted visitors just made it feel like a prison. When the transplant day finally arrived, I received my brother’s bone marrow cells through my central line in about an hour. By this point I was bald, too weak to walk, couldn’t keep any food down, and had a fever. I was miserable.
Two weeks of treatment passed and there was still no sign that the new cells were grafting. By this point, my 5’ 5” frame had dropped down to an emaciated 89 pounds. I was still extremely susceptible to infections and sure enough, it happened: I developed pneumonia. I suddenly thought, “Did I just go though all of this to die from a complication from treatment?” The answer is, “no, not now!” I knew that this could turn bad, but I had no idea just how fast. It started with fever and coughing and then turned into chest tightness. Even with oxygen, my breathing got progressively worse until I started to slip into respiratory failure. At this point, I truly did not think I would survive. I was gasping for air and couldn’t breathe. My oxygen level dropped and I had to be intubated and sent to the ICU. In 24 hours, my situation had gone from bad to worse. When organ failure sets in, it usually means you’re on a downward slope. The prognosis was not good.
I was given medicine to make me sleep, so I don’t remember being on the ventilator in the ICU, but they said I was pumped full of antibiotics and high doses of steroids. I’m not sure how many days passed, but by the grace of God, they got control of the pneumonia and I gradually began to improve. They stopped the sleeping medicine and I woke up to my Dad, once again, squeezing my hand saying, “wake up Kate, I know you can hear me.” I opened my eyes to see my dad sitting next to me, my mom crying and my brother’s eyes wide open. I desperately wanted to speak but couldn’t because of the breathing tube. I realized I was laying there with a ventilator breathing for me and an NG tube eating for me. I had literally been on death’s doorstep.
Gradually the fever went down, and once stable enough, I was taken off the ventilator. I left the ICU, and returned back to a “clean room”, where everyone who came in had to wear a gown, mask, and be completely disinfected before entering. We weren’t taking ANY chances now. Only my family and staff were allowed in my room and friends were contacted only by phone. But finally, we got the good news we’d been hoping for. Blood tests showed that the new BMT cells were grafting. My blood counts were normalizing and a new immune system was developing. Suddenly, my whole outlook changed. My life was mine again.
After nearly 3 months of further treatment, I finally had enough of an immune system to leave the hospital. But I was still nowhere cured; I continued maintenance therapy for months afterwards. My weakened body had so much repairing to do, all I could do was sleep. It took months for my immune system to build itself up again. But even after all of that, I ended up relapsing a year and a half later. After another ALL battle of chemo; induction, consolidation, and maintenance I made it through once again.
I’m happy to report that I am now healthy and cancer free. I was finally able to go back to school and continue with my life. After a lot of catching up and summer classes, I graduated with my BS in biology in May 2010. I’ll be starting my journey through medical school in the fall. I want to dedicate my life to helping people through their own life-threatening illnesses. I’m not sure why I had to go through cancer at such an early age but I know everything happens for a reason. And I know God had a purpose for putting me on this earth; a purpose yet unfulfilled.
I have so many people to thank for my recovery; my dad, being a doctor, and my mom a nurse, supported me all the way and really helped with my recovery at home. And my brother, Joshua, for without his marrow donation, I don’t think I’d be alive today. And I’m truly sorry for all of the hardship and torment I put them through. And thank you to all of the nurses and doctors on my treatment team at SCCC at UTSW Medical Center who truly saved my life. And most importantly thank the Lord God for giving me this life and the ability to live it to the fullest.