Could She Survive Chemo and Find a Bone Marrow Donor?

A leukemia diagnosis threatened her life. She couldn't have guessed a stranger would help save her.

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- Posted on Aug 22, 2017

There's nothing Latral likes to do more than things she couldn't do while in treatment.

I've been in the medical field for over 20 years and always knew helping others was my calling. As head dialysis technician at Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, I had the experience, knowledge and confidence to meet the needs of every one of my patients.

Then in August 2014, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and the tables turned. I became the one in need.

My husband, Norman, and I were soon to celebrate our second anniversary, and we'd planned a romantic getaway for the occasion. But something wasn't right with me. I felt worse and worse, until I couldn't hold down any food or drink. We had to cancel our trip. When excruciating pain landed me in the ER, I thought it must be an ulcer. It proved to be much more serious.

"Ms. Groomes," the ER doctor said, "I've scheduled you for an appointment at Massey Cancer Center." My white blood cell count was too high. I needed to see a hematologist. I told Norman first. Then I called my sister, Cynthia, my prayer warrior. "Whatever it is, I know God can heal me," I told her. "He's done it before and he can do it again."

Meantime, I made Cynthia promise not to tell anyone else in the family. I didn't want them to worry over me. I was determined to get this behind me so I could go on with what I was meant to do on this earth, take care of others.

The day of the appointment, Norman and Cynthia were with me for support. Additional tests showed I had blood cancer. "Acute myeloid leukemia is an aggressive blood cancer, "the hematologist said evenly. "Some cancers take years to develop, but AML can infect your entire body in just a matter of months."

I was admitted to the hospital that night. AML had taken over 98 percent of my body, devouring my red blood cells. Without immediate chemotherapy, I could be dead in four to six weeks. "How long will I be here? "I asked the nurse from my hospital bed. I had patients in the dialysis center to tend to.

They needed my assistance. I had to take their vitals, ensure their rooms were sterile, double-check their machines, and monitor their reaction to the treatment that could run as long as four hours. I'd sit with some, pray with others, until they felt better. They relied on me and I couldn't let them down. The nurse listened and patted my hand. I was going to be here for a while.

Eventually, I would need a bone marrow transplant. But first I needed to be in remission. The doctors were unsure if I would make it through chemo, which would wipe out my immune system. Any infection could kill me easily. As the treatment took effect, I could barely muster the energy to sit up on my own.

Some days, I slept 16 hours and it wasn't a restful sleep—I was almost always in pain from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. I suffered from night sweats, fevers and chills all at the same time. Chemo also killed my taste buds and my appetite. I was no longer a caregiver—I was a bona fide patient.

By now, my whole family knew. Friends' acquaintances, friends of friends—everyone. I couldn't hide it any longer. I needed a bone-marrow donor. The transplant coordinator was honest with me from the beginning.

She said my chance of finding a match was slim to none. The donor would have to be a match at the proteins level, which is generally culture specific. My donor had to match at least six of eight human leukocyte antigen markers—neither my sister Cynthia nor any of my other four siblings were matches. What were the chances of finding anyone who'd be a candidate for me?

I knew what a potential donor
 had to go through—information sessions, physical exams, giving blood samples. Who had that kind of time? And the procedure could be painful or cause side effects. What stranger would offer him or herself in that way? Prayer kept me going—prayer for myself and my donor, if one was out there.

Against all odds, a donor did step up and not just any donor but a perfect donor, a perfect match for me. My donor was another me! Now, all I had to do was survive chemo treatment. Some days were better than others but God was with me every step of the journey, as were my family and countless others who went out of their way to help during my
 43 days in the hospital.

In December 2014, a routine biopsy showed zero percent leukemia. I was in remission and scheduled for a transplant in February 2015. But a week before surgery, the leukemia returned. It was at six percent. I was devastated. What about my donor? Was she supposed to just put her life on hold? 
I could easily lose her.

After a few weeks in the hospital with complications from the second round of chemo, I was stable enough to go home with a medication drip that had to be changed every 12 hours and a heart vest I had to wear round the clock, ready to deliver an electric shock to restart my heart if it stopped. Still, I was at the hospital every day for blood work.

By September, I was back in remission and my heart was strong enough to prep me for the transplant.

Nine months after my original transplant date, in November 2015, my donor—my perfect match—
was ready to see the commitment through. Who was this selfless individual? The operation was a success, and I prayed for my donor's healing as hard as I prayed for my own. When the official "waiting period" was over, and the donor agreed, the donor program, Be the Match, gave me the donor's information.

Her name was Raykell. She lived in Illinois. I had to ask what made her make such a sacrifice for someone she did not even know. "I had a friend whose son needed a bone-marrow transplant," she said, "so I signed up to see if I was a match." She wasn't, and the boy passed away in 2006 before a donor could be found. Raykell forgot all about the donor list until one Sunday morning in 2014.

"I was at church and our pastor was hosting a donor drive for Be the Match. I remembered I was already registered so I knew I didn't have to register again. The very next day, I received a call." Raykell was a match for someone—for me. "God was preparing me all those years ago, getting me ready to help someone in need," she said. "It didn't matter that I didn't know who it was. God knew."

Raykell and I were a match spiritually as well as physically. We talked every day, still do. Because wasn't she right? God put us on the earth to care and be cared for. Even me.

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