12. Hope Beats ALL

12. Hope Beats ALL

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Hope Beats ALL

I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.

~Agatha Christie

I woke on Christmas Day writhing in pain. The presents were forgotten as we rushed to the hospital. After numerous tests, I was admitted. My platelets were at 3,300; normal would be over 150,000.

A few days later I got the diagnosis. Leukemia. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) with the Philadelphia chromosome, to be exact. ALL is a fast-acting leukemia. We had to move equally fast with my treatment. Before I could process how back and chest pain could turn into cancer, I was transferred to a hospital in another city that had a transplant ward.

I had never spent the night away from my six-year-old son. How could I tell him Mom would be staying in the hospital, possibly for months? Worse yet, how could I explain that if things didn’t go well, Mom might never come home? How do you tell your child that? How do you tell yourself that?

Since it was flu season, my son wasn’t allowed to visit me. My baby boy needed his dad, so I sent my husband home to comfort him. I stayed alone in the hospital watching reruns, despairing at the thought of not watching my son grow up. That was the one thing that devastated me most.

Reading and writing books had always been my escape, my comfort, but the medications made it impossible for me to focus enough to think straight. It was as if another part of me was being taken away. My health, my family, and now my ability to think — how much more would I lose?

With chemotherapy alone, I had a twenty percent survival rate. A bone marrow transplant raised my odds to thirty to fifty percent with a twenty percent chance of dying from the actual transplant. I thought those odds would be my biggest challenge, but I was wrong.

The hospital wouldn’t consider the transplant unless my insurance covered it completely. At the same time, the news interviewed a man who had state assisted insurance and they denied his transplant. He died while I waited to hear back from my insurance company.

Even if I sold everything I owned: my house, my car, even the clothes off my back — I wouldn’t have enough to pay for it. Luckily, we had picked the highest coverage plan available at my husband’s work and my transplant was covered.

But first we would have to a find someone who could donate.

My sister was tested to see if she could be a donor, but wasn’t a match. My brother had disappeared from our lives shortly after my mom passed away from ovarian cancer. We hadn’t heard from him in over ten years. My niece tracked him down online and he flew from Washington to be tested and offered to move back to care for me, as I would need a twenty-four-hour caregiver after the transplant.

The cancer that threatened my life had brought my brother back home to us.

It was a bittersweet reunion when they said he wasn’t a match either. I’d need an anonymous donor. People of mixed race, like me, have a difficult time finding a match. Many never do. I prepared myself to die.

Despondent one day, I asked my oncologist if there was any hope. He said, “There’s always hope.”

He proved to be right. They found a match.

Before I could get the transplant, I had to go through chemotherapy treatments, including injections of chemotherapy directly into my spine. I also had to have another bone marrow biopsy, which meant a very large needle jabbed into my bone to remove some of the marrow for testing. Did you know they can’t numb bone? The pain was unbelievable. There were times I didn’t think I could endure it, but I did.

To cope, I made vlogs, funny and sad, to post online throughout my treatment. Complete strangers commented that I inspired them.

The morning I woke and left most of my hair on the pillow, I wrote a haiku and posted it with a picture of me bald and smiling. I let my son draw on my head with markers so he wouldn’t be scared.

Once I was in remission, thus increasing the chances of the transplant being successful, I received the marrow through a simple transfusion. The effects were debilitating. I was on a morphine drip for the pain and couldn’t eat. Due to complications, I was in the hospital for forty-four days.

It was one of the hardest things I’d ever faced. Staying alive. But I fought. I got out of bed every day and exercised however I could. I visualized watching my son graduate from high school. If I could survive through sheer will alone, I would do it.

I was shocked at how much strength I’d lost. Just walking across a room was exhausting. One day, unexpectedly, my legs gave out. I couldn’t get up, and I was blocking the door so no one could get in to help me. I had to crawl out of the way to get help.

I had a three-hour nosebleed right before getting a blood transfusion. My face felt funny, so I looked in the mirror. With the gauze up my nose, bruises all over my arms from low platelets, and swollen eyes, when the nurse asked what happened, I answered, “The first rule of Fight Club is . . .” and laughed.

It sounds horrible — it was horrible — but we dealt with it with laughter, prayer and many tears. I joked with my husband, when he had to help me shower, that he hadn’t been in the shower with me that much since our honeymoon. I learned to brace myself to keep from falling. When I did fall, I called my son my hero for helping me up and watched him puff up with pride. I walked every day, a little longer each week, to build up my strength.

Shortly after my release, my father passed away unexpectedly. I was devastated. I hadn’t been well enough to see him in months. Sinking into a depression would’ve set my healing back, so instead I remembered our last Christmas Eve together before I was diagnosed, before he was gone. I was happy I was able to tell him, just days before he died, that the transplant was successful — there were no signs of cancer.

At Christmas, a year after the diagnosis that changed my life, I realized it was time to go from fighting for survival to living my life. While I could’ve despaired about my ordeals, I chose to count my blessings: the overwhelming support from friends and family, the return of an estranged brother, and the boundless generosity of a stranger donating marrow and life.

Now, three years later, we are saving to go to Disney World, without the wheelchair. Much to my son’s delight, the whole family went camping at the Grand Canyon. I finished writing my second novel. I work with Be The Match to bring the gift of life to others. Christmas is no longer a bad memory. I have overcome the challenges I never thought I could. My life has been truly blessed.

~Rissa Watkins

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