It wasn't until a series of strange and seemingly inexplicable health problems began to affect Bill Marsh that he discovered he had Stage III multiple myeloma.
Marsh, a civil engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and retired Marine, was lucky. His cancer was only discovered because of skeletal abnormalities found during exams after a car crash.
He was told that had he gone on much longer without treatment, his prognosis would have been hopeless.
"I read up and I found that folks with this diagnosis last maybe two or three years," says Marsh. "I'm going, this is not good news."
Marsh was referred to The James and Steven Devine, MD. The team there recommended that Marsh receive an autologous peripheral blood stem cell transplant, a procedure where a patient's stem cells are collected from his bloodstream and then re-injected once the cancer is treated. They coordinated this effort with his cardiologist considering the impact of treatment on his cardiovascular health.
Marsh's journey began in February 2006, when he began treatments with Neupogen®, a drug that caused his marrow's stem cells to migrate into his bloodstream.
When that was accomplished, the stem cells were filtered and frozen for storage.
Two weeks after that, Marsh received myeloablative chemotherapy to kill off his disease. The treatment also destroyed the remaining normal marrow.
Then, the extracted stem cells were re-infused into this bloodstream, where they rebuilt his bone marrow function.
Any chemotherapy is a grueling regimen, but Marsh says the physicians and staff at The James worked hard to make the process as easy on him as possible. “The staff at The James did a fantastic job of keeping me positive," says Marsh.
He wrote a letter to the department to thank the staff of nurses, doctors and others who made a scary and difficult time in his life bearable with professional, excellent care.
Marsh was in the hospital less than three weeks. He went back to work half-time in April 2006 and returned to full time in July 2006.
Bone marrow taps in August 2006 showed that his treatment was effective, when means that he's considered to be in remission. Marsh is now getting back to work with vigor, as he's responsible for construction in several foreign countries. His oncologist and cardiologist gave him the green light to travel in the near future to inspect some work overseas.
"I guess you could say that I am enjoying the lemonade made from the bunch of lemons that life has handed us, thanks to The James staff," says Marsh. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm here for the long haul now," says Marsh.
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When Barb Mindel was referred to doctors at The James in 1990 with acute lymphocytic leukemia, needing a bone marrow transplant, she told them she had only one goal.
"I told them I wanted to dance at my daughter's wedding," she says. "I still plan to. She's 22 years old now and I hope that’s still a long way off."
Mindel, a computer systems manager for Ohio State's Office of Continuing Education, was the recipient of a bone marrow transplant using cells from an unrelated matched donor.
Sixteen years later, Mindel recalls the long, scary journey from diagnosis, through the transplant, recovery, and then later, getting to know the donor who saved her life.
"It started when I had bruises on my legs, but I had a two-year-old, so I didn't give them much thought. When I found enlarged lymph nodes in my neck, that got me to the doctor," she says.
That was April of 1986. Mindel was only 36 years old at the time.
A round of chemotherapy put her cancer into remission, but in February of 1990, the bruises reappeared, and Mindel knew her leukemia was back.
The only chance for a cure, doctors told her, was a bone marrow transplant.
"It was terrifying,” Mindel says. “They told me I had a 30 percent chance of survival — I felt like digging a hole and crawling in. But I had no choice."
Mindel's physicians at The James tested her only brother, but unfortunately, he was not a compatible match. The only chance was for an unrelated matched donor to turn up on National Marrow Donor Registry (NMDR) — a one in 20,000 shot.
Against the odds, a match was found with a donor from Racine, Wis., and Mindel's transplant took place after a harrowing round of myeloablative chemotherapy to kill off her body's existing marrow — and the leukemia lurking in her blood.
"The care I received at The James was outstanding. The doctors were wonderful and the nursing staff was exceptional. I could not even imagine having a better group of people working on my behalf," says Mindel.
But as in all BMTs, recovery was long, she says, and difficult. Mindel was isolated from human contact while her immune system was reborn. That meant she was separated from her then six-year-old daughter for months.
"While I was in the hospital, she'd dance around outside my hospital window on the lawn below, we'd talk on walkie talkies, and we exchanged videos," she says.
Gradually, Mindel's life went back to normal. Weeks passed, then months and years. After five years, in 1995, Mindel was given a clean bill of health by doctors at The James.
Along with her health, Mindel was given another gift — the friendship of Mark Hertzberg, the donor whose bone marrow saved her life.
Not long after her transplant, Mindel sent the anonymous donor a thank you card and letter. Hertzberg replied back, and the two set up a correspondence that continues to this day.
Hertzberg, a photojournalist, says he was inspired to register with the NMDR by a friend who died of leukemia.
"It was an unbelievable feeling when I got a call that I was a possible match for someone," Hertzberg says.
The two have continued to write and speak on the phone, keeping abreast of each other's families and lives. They occasionally catch up in person, and speak on the anniversary of Mindel's transplant every year on Sept. 20.
Since 1990, Hertzberg has lived a decade and a half and published a book on Frank Lloyd Wright, but, he says, having the chance to donate marrow stands out among his life's accomplishments.
"It gave me a great sense of joy to meet her. I mean, you've gone on with your life. The operation was done and over with, almost forgotten, and now here they are telling you they're grateful you saved their life," says Hertzberg. "It's sort of humbling."
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Joel Rice spent a lot of time at The James in 1996, as the recipient of an allogeneic marrow transplant.
Now, 10 years later, Rice spends every day on that transplant unit.
The chance to give back as a nurse practitioner on the same floor where he received his own transplant makes his recovery all the sweeter, he says.
"I always told myself that's where I wanted to be. It was a great opportunity to be able to help families get through the experience, everything they go through. If my story helps one person, it's been worth it," he says.
Rice's journey began with a mysterious, nagging cold-like illness that got severe enough for him to visit the emergency room while on spring break from OSU with his then fiancée Angie and his brothers.
Angie and Joel were completely stunned by the diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia.
"I thought, 'What are you saying, that's crazy, he can't have that.' It all seemed so surreal. We had just had gotten engaged three months before that," says Angie, now Rice's wife.
The pair was immediately flown back to The James where they were told an allogeneic marrow transplant was Joel's best — and perhaps only — chance for survival.
Luckily, Joel's brother turned out to be a good match, and the transplant took place in September 1996.
Joel and Angie both took leave from their studies at Ohio State, where both had been sophomores. They lived at Joel's parents' home in Marysville during his long recovery.
His experience with leukemia inspired him to redirect his career path to medicine. About a year after his transplant, Rice decided to take on a degree in biology, and eventually went on to graduate school at the College of Nursing at Ohio State, graduating as a nurse practitioner in 2004.
In March 2006, Joel got the call he'd been hoping for years from The James, asking him to come back and work as a nurse practitioner at the Transplant Unit, alongside some of the same physicians and nurses who took care of him a decade before.
"It gives me a huge feeling of pride. I am so proud of him. I admire him for what he's done with himself and how he made it through all that," says Angie.
Joel says initially and still from time to time, difficult memories could be dredged to the surface by close contact with patients living an experience so similar to his. But, he says, getting the chance to help them makes it worth it.
"Hope is probably the best thing I can give — it's what I offer a lot of our patients," he says.
Joel's leukemia was considered in complete remission after five years. Not long after he started work at The James, the tenth anniversary of his diagnosis passed — and he took a day off of work to celebrate.
Joel and Angie count a new blessing these days — Maya, the pair's first child, turned one on April 28, 2006.
"I tell my brother frequently I would not be here unless it was for him," says Joel. "I don’t think a lot of people realize the impact they have as donors on people's lives. Today we do a lot of unrelated donor transplants, and it's amazing what we are able to do for patients and their survival rates. We're able to prolong lives."
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Kevin Hempfling says that when he received his bone marrow transplant at the age of 18, he didn’t know how lucky he was.
Twenty years later, looking at his three children, he now understands.
Basketball injuries and the sharp attention of his sister, a nurse, revealed Hempfling’s leukemia in March of his senior year of high school. Luckily, the condition was caught relatively early.
The Ottawa, Ohio, native was referred to The James’ fledgling BMT program, becoming its third ever BMT patient in 1984. At that time, only siblings could be marrow donors. That was Hempfling’s second lucky strike — neither his brother Keith nor sister Bonnie were matches, but his brother Mark was.
After a grueling round of chemo, months spent in the hospital and then in an apartment rented by the family for Hempfling and his mother, he was able to return home temporarily for his high school graduation.
Finally, after surviving a pneumonia scare (his third bit of luck), Hempfling was given a clean bill of health in 1987, three years after his transplant.
Hempfling’s fourth miracle came for him and his wife, Julie, more than a decade later in the form of their three children, Katilyn, Brandon and Collin. He had been told that because of the chemotherapy he had had to undergo as a part of the transplant, he probably would not be able to have children.
Hempfling, now a salesman at a farm equipment manufacturing firm in Ottawa, still lives on his family’s farm near his siblings and parents. He coaches all three of his kids in basketball, soccer, baseball and softball.
“Mark, my older brother, and I weren’t as close when we were younger. Funny how things work out, that he was the match. It drew us all so much closer, but Mark and me especially,” says Hempfling.
Hempfling had a chance to reflect on all those lucky chances, and his successful treatment, in 2004 at the 20th birthday celebration of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at The James.
“I’m thankful for more than I would have been. I just don’t take things for granted any more,” says Hempfling.
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Between December 1996 and March 1998, Joseph Ogden noticed that a lump in his groin area was getting larger. A biopsy of the lump was taken and Joe was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Ogden, currently an Auctioneer and antiques enthusiast, insisted on being treated at The James.
Ogden received two rounds of chemotherapy between April 1998 and 1999. Ogden’s cancer was in remission until 2001 when a routine CT scan detected more tumors.
“At this point radiation treatment and chemotherapy became my life,” Ogden said. “I honestly never counted the chemo treatments I received but I know it was well over 50. It was definitely no walk in the park!”
When countless chemo treatment options for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma had been exhausted, the only remaining option was for Ogden to undergo a stem cell/mini bone marrow transplant.
Thomas Lin, MD, PhD, helped Ogden to test his three sisters for an allogeneic (related) transplant, but none of them were a match. His name was added to the National Bone Marrow Registry in the hopes of finding an unrelated match.
An almost perfect match was found and Ogden and his wife moved to Columbus to be closer to The James. Ogden underwent full body radiation and chemotherapy in preparation for the procedure. One day before Ogden’s 60th birthday, he received his first successful stem cell transplant.
In July 2005, after a new tumor was discovered in Ogden’s throat, he received three more rounds of extensive chemo and radiation treatment and another mini bone marrow transplant, supplied by the original donor.
Dr. Lin then referred Ogden to Arick Forrest, MD, at the OSU Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic. “Dr. Forrest injected a substance I jokingly call ‘silly putty’ into my throat to push the vocal cord against the other cord and I could talk again,” exclaimed Ogden.
“I know without a doubt that the doctors, specialists and nurses at The James saved my life,” Ogden said. “The staff at the BMT unit became like our family. I still stop and visit with them every time I’m in for a check-up, but now it’s for me to see how they are all doing!”
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On May 25, 2002, 38-year-old Angela Poynter was celebrating her daughter’s birthday at the Columbus Zoo when her family noticed she was becoming unusually fatigued after suffering from a nose bleed.
Later that evening, Poynter’s parents noticed some strange red spots on her skin and Angela noticed unusual bruising that she knew couldn’t have occurred from playing with her three small children. When she awoke the next morning, Poynter was covered from head to toe with these same red spots.
Poynter and her husband immediately rushed to the Emergency Room at The Ohio State University Medical Center.
Initially diagnosed as Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura, Poynter’s condition was later found to be aplastic anemia. For the next several months she traveled back and forth from Mt. Vernon to Columbus two or three times per week to receive blood transfusions. Her only hope for a permanent cure was a bone marrow transplant.
Poynter’s brother was tested to see if he could be a donor. He was not a match, though a perfect match was found through the national bone marrow registry and the transplant was set for May, 2003. The evening before the operation, Poynter’s husband received a phone call from the hospital saying that something was found in the donor’s health history that would prevent him from being a donor. Poynter and her family were devastated.
After being placed back on the registry, Poynter received a successful transplant in the middle of August 2003. “I can say that from August until November, the team of people I had working for me at The James continued to have one objective, and that was to get me back home with my daughters,” Poynter said.
From September 2003 through November 2003, Poynter and her husband lived in an apartment near Ohio State’s campus designated for transplant patients while she underwent rehabilitation therapy and her health was continually monitored. On Thanksgiving Day, she was finally able to return home for good.
Poynter became very well acquainted with the staff at The James. Her oncologist, Spero Cataland, MD, was “kind and straightforward,” keeping Poynter “informed, while preventing [her] from worrying about negative things that could happen.” Sam Penza, MD also assisted in Poynter’s treatment. “They were giving me the best care I could have had,” she said. “I prayed for them as well as the others. I thanked God for the abilities He had given them.”
Since her recovery, Poynter began working with the Americorps program as a reading tutor and is currently a fourth grade teacher in Kentucky.
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