Editorial Contributions by Jean C. Carroll
It has been nearly seventeen years since our family’s journey into the unknown world of bone marrow transplant began. My husband Bill underwent two bone marrow transplants while our family went through another type of unexpected ordeal: the emotional, mental, and spiritual “transplant” which changed our lives forever.
In 2002, life was peaceful, even picturesque. Bill and I were in our early forties, and I was a contented stay-at-home mom of four beautiful sons, ages 8, 6, 4, and 2. We lived in a wonderful community with great schools. In June of that year, we took a nice beach trip with friends. Life was good. A month later we were in an emergency room with what we feared was a life-threatening disease for Bill. He was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. As many may know, there is no wait time with treatment for blood cancers. Generally, treatments such as chemotherapy must begin within days. A week went by, which seemed liked a month, while we were in the hospital’s bone marrow unit.
With this new devastating diagnosis, I came home to my boys, not knowing what to say; whether to cry or act normal. What do I say to four young boys who had no idea where their dad was? There was no manual on how to go about being a mom under these circumstances.
From that point on, we had assistance from family members who graciously stayed at our house to help care for the boys, while I traveled back and forth to the hospital. I would spend the night with my husband, and stay the day in the BMT Unit until the afternoon. Then I would head home, be with my boys, and return to the hospital each evening after the boys’ bedtime. This schedule, although hectic, seemed to work for a while. However, I soon learned that my oldest son was having a lot of anxiety and stress each night after I departed. A blessing came through a friend who dropped off dinner one night. She told us that one of her family members had been sick with cancer years ago and that their son experienced fear, especially about the possibility of her dying. She said this mother told her son, “I do not think I am going to die; however, if things change and I think I am going to die, I will tell you.” I sat down with our son and told him this very same thing about his dad not knowing how he would react. I also had him meet with Bill’s leukemia doctor, who was a genuinely caring individual. He sat down with our son and talked to him about what his dad was going through. The doctor said he was doing everything he could to help Bill get back home. All of this helped our son very much.
I remember that I used to cry so hard during the car rides back and forth to the hospital. On the rides home, I would wipe my tears away, try to splash water on my face, and walk into our home with a smile and joy at seeing my sons again. I still do not know if that was the right thing to do, but my thought at the time was to not worry them any more than they already were.
Another thing I did with our boys, because they loved pretend battles and warrior-type toys, was to explain in their terms what was happening with their dad’s illness. I told them their dad had a battle going on inside his body. The doctors were giving him medicine to fight off the bad guys inside; but sometimes that ‘fight’ made him very sick. This was the reason why he needed to stay in the hospital – so the doctors could care for him. I tried to assure them that the good guys were going to win the battle one day; and then their dad would be alright and come home soon. Whether this story helped them, I do not know; but I still remember their little faces filled with rapt attention.
Bill returned home after about six weeks of treatments. Family help continued, but I remember being so concerned about how the boys truly were coping inside with all we were going through. It was a day-by-day journey, and when we could, we tried to live life as normally as possible, with school and other activities. I did take the boys to talk with a child psychologist a couple years into Bill’s cancer journey. After a couple of visits, the psychologist assured me that she felt our boys were fine.
To this day, I cannot even imagine what our boys must have gone through, living with this abnormal ordeal of their dad’s cancer. They must have struggled with huge fears, seeing their dad in such a desperate state, which sometimes was difficult to witness. Bill not only had two transplants, he also experienced associated strokes, one of which was hemorrhagic and required immediate brain surgery. He also suffered a post- seizure disorder, and at times, was not able to walk or have cognitive reasoning skills. I am happy to say that Bill has overcome a great deal and is just about as whole as a human being can be.
Our boys are now young men, ages 25, 23, 21, and 19. They are amazing and wonderful human beings. Are they fine, as the psychologist revealed? I truly do not know; but we tried to be honest with our kids and continue conversations about how life had changed so long ago. The one thing that carried me through was to see my husband’s face in our sons as they grew up and matured. We do not know what tomorrow holds, but at this moment, we can say God defeated the leukemia that had struck our family. Ironically, the word “transplant” described every aspect of our family’s journey through this dark path of the unknown. But, there was also light with us. That light of our faith in God guided us to joys we would never have known had we not traveled this road. Each year took its time to heal, but now we live a new normal. The “transplant,” which we never would have asked for, has brought profound gratitude to God and precious love to our family.
Special Thanks to Beth Warstadt and, to Dr. Lawrence Morris and Team with The Blood & Marrow Transplant Group of Georgia, Northside Hospital-Atlanta