Sunday, June 8, 2014

My Favorite Neighbor I’ve Never Met

My spine shivered when I heard Drew puking. Unlike my once-a-day vomits that mimicked the Tambora volcanic eruption of 1815, Drew’s were fast, graceful and plentiful. I tracked my “Puke Count” on a whiteboard with tallies. Drew’s Puke Count would require an entire wall.

Drew and I shared a wall because he was my next-door neighbor at the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Center at the University of Minnesota. That is where I received my umbilical cord stem cell transplant to treat myelodysplasia when I was 19 years old. I never formally met Drew, though I knew much about him by prying my nurses, instructing my dad to “bump into” his mother for updates, and hearing his vomits.

Drew was 14 years old. We had bone marrow transplants around the same time to treat forms of leukemia. He vomited 30 times a day.

We suffered from the exact same post-transplant complications at the exact same times. I developed a lung infection that required me to take a kidney-punishing antifungal drug because we feared I had a pulmonary infection called Aspergillus, which has a 50-70% kill rate. He developed an infection that forced his visitors—including his mother—to dress in full body suits just to see him. I imagined Drew in the medical disaster movie Outbreak, just with a pretty, brown-haired nurse replacing the virologist played by Dustin Hoffman.

When I was discharged after 65 consecutive days in the hospital, my temperature spiked and I had to be re-admitted two days later. Drew had also been discharged the same day, but beat me back to the hospital by a few hours and “stole” my hospital room. I took the adjacent one.

After our room reversal, we each developed hemorrhagic cystitis which caused our bladders to bleed. Now we shared a wall and space between the doors to our respective rooms where nurses stacked five-gallon bags of water, creating our own miniature Mount Tambora. Our nurses would hang the bags from IV poles so the water could enter our bladders through catheters and exit through tubes leading to our showers.

I survived the transplant, Aspergillus and hemorrhagic cystitis. I returned to Minnesota 1.5 years later for a checkup. I visited the transplant center, looking in on the room that Drew and I both once occupied. I timed my visit to make sure my favorite nurse, Biel, was working. For the last time, I pried Biel about Drew.

I am fortunate to be alive and healthy 11 years after my umbilical cord stem cell transplant while many others have lost their fights. I want a world where Drew and I are both alive 11 years later. I can’t bring back Drew, but maybe I can help the next Drew. There are six days left in my Man of the Year fundraising campaign. Please donate any amount, even just $10 which would be 10 more tallies on the imaginary wall that Drew and I still share. Help me raise $50,000 for a research grant specifically for cancer research. My spine just shivered thinking of what we can do together. You can donate here.