At this time of the year, I become very nostalgic and reflective whenever I am asked by people, “How was the school year?” Having just experienced once again the traditions and rites of passage that go along with the Archmere experience for our students, I cannot help but be proud and impressed at the accomplishments and developments of these boys and girls as they grow into responsible and caring young men and women. In addition to this perennial experience, and within the same timeframe this year, I had the opportunity to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I was introduced to the cause like so many others – through a personal family experience. While I accepted the challenge of being a part of the Man and Woman of the Year Campaign, I was also sensitive to my position as Headmaster at Archmere Academy. I shared my story with a few hundred family and friends, and now that my leg of the Campaign is completed, I want to share my story of blood cancer with the members of the Archmere community. I believe that my story may be much like your own relationships with family and friends, as well as the faith and support that you share with others.
My wife, Diane, was the Campaign Manager, and like everything else that she does for our family and for me, did an amazing job in keeping us organized and on track. I simply could not have kept up with all of my obligations without her. Lasting 10 weeks beginning March 30, the Campaign ended on June 10 with a gala, when I was (surprisingly) named 2017 Man of the Year! Thank you to the more than 225 donors and family volunteers who raised over $30,000 for the cause. As you can imagine, as Ring Mass, proms, baccalaureate, and commencement were unfolding at Archmere, with speeches about promise and hope for the future – all telling a story of a bright future – I was also meeting with children and young adults afflicted with blood cancers and fighting for survival, and some, happily, in remission, but with the worry of potential relapse – stories of hope for a permanent cure.
This Spring experience for me reminded me more than ever of the peaks and valleys of life’s journey, and the need for all of us to have a faith and a spirituality strong enough to manage through our challenges and recognize those who helped us achieve our successes. So, if you have a few moments to spare, and would like to read about my experience with blood cancer, here is my story.
MY LLS STORY
My first memories of my older brother, Gene, are when I was about 5 or 6 years old. By that time, he was in college and would be home on weekends and during the holidays and summer breaks. He was always fun to be around, because he paid attention to me. As a much younger brother (by almost 14 years), I suppose I could “get in the way” with his social calendar, although I never felt that to be the case. Frequent visits to the local ice cream shop, playing “Around the World” with Gene and his friends at the hoop on the driveway, or just listening together to 45 RPM records in the family room, I was always included. When Gene graduated from Mt. St. Mary’s College and enlisted in the Navy in the summer of 1968, I remember my parents keeping in touch with long weekly phone conversations from the kitchen. I would listen, and always hope that he would be kept safe as my parents and I watched nightly reports on the TV news of the Vietnam War.
After his Naval service, Gene, his wife, Karen, and their family relocated to Delaware, where, as a close-knit Italian family, we watched his family grow. It was over four years ago this past fall that I received a phone call from by brother telling me that he was diagnosed with AML, Acute Myeloid Leukemia. The prognosis was not hopeful with a life expectancy of 3 to 9 months. He began a regimen of treatment at the Helen Graham Cancer Center, with the hope of finding a bone marrow transplant donor. My two other brothers and I were soon tested for a donor match. I had the closest partial match with six out of ten markers. The decision of the family with Dr. Beardell was to continue with a consistent course of chemotherapy, since Gene was having good success with maintaining his health and quality of life. During that two-year period his leukemia was in remission with the chemotherapy, while no identical match was found for a transplant.
In May of 2015, I received a phone call from Gene telling me that the medication regimen was beginning to fail, and the only hope of long-term survival was a bone marrow transplant. Since no perfect donor match was found, Dr. Beardell was recommending a new protocol involving a transplant with a partially matched donor. I immediately said that I would participate, and on July 9, 2015, I had bone marrow surgically removed and given to Gene that same afternoon. Leading up to the day, the staff of the Helen Graham Center could not have been more supportive, especially nurse Donna, who took me through all of the pre-surgical tests and blood work, as well as explaining to me the procedure in detail. I had the simpler preparation, as my brother had to be admitted to the hospital weeks before and stay in isolation while his immune system was suppressed sufficiently for his body to accept my T-cells. He had chemotherapy and whole body radiation. I never saw a person with such strength and humor suppress, what I am sure, was anxiety and fear.
By the fall of 2015, Gene was experiencing his body’s reaction to the foreign T-cells, and although they were helping, his cancer cells would not give up. So in March of 2016, we harvested more of my T-cells, and Gene was injected with them, in addition to beginning another regimen of chemotherapy. By the fall of 2016, Gene was feeling pretty well. As he said once when I visited him, “If I did not know it, I would say that I am not sick.” The best news came later in the fall, when a bone marrow test showed no signs of cancer cells. While he continued with the chemotherapy treatments, and is having another bone marrow test in February, he said to me at the holidays, that no matter the final outcome, he considers each day of the last four years as a gift, because he was not expected to survive more than 10 months.
I have to attribute my brother’s survival and quality of life to the medical research and practice of the wonderful physicians and assistants who work in the field of blood cancer diseases and treatments. Dr. Beardell has regularly conferred with doctors from Johns Hopkins and Anderson Cancer Center in Texas to make sure my brother gets the best care based on the most current and effective drugs available for his illness. Dr. Beardell even followed the Johns Hopkins course of treatment for the bone marrow transplant administered at Helen Graham. He speaks with other doctors from different leading research hospitals across the country, making it possible for my brother to receive care from great minds whom are all working tirelessly together to extend life and eventually cure this disease.
If we can advance the study and application of cancer cures, we can make a difference in the lives of so many people – from the youngest children to the most senior among us. I also believe that my brother’s faith and determination – his mental outlook – played an important part in living with his cancer diagnosis. The team of medical professionals, family members, and friends all provided encouragement and support that are indefinable, but necessary ingredients in the fight for the cure. The work of these research professionals has played a great part in extending my brother’s life, and we cannot begin to attach a dollar amount to that gift. Yet that’s why, together with family and friends, I am raising money, so research for better treatments, life extension and cures can continue.
I agreed to participate in the Man and Women of the Year fund raising campaign for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society because I am grateful to have seen and experienced first-hand the thoughtfully prescribed, cutting-edge, research-based treatments by caring medical professionals that bring hope to a patient and his family. That journey of hope, no matter how long or how short, joins together people who love each other in a unique way – one that supports the very physical life and spirit of another. We, as fellow human beings on this life’s journey, can experience nothing that connects us more than life itself.