It has been ten years since my wife, Fran, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) when she was 41. With one phone call that day, our world turned upside down.
We were told up front what Fran was facing. Her induction chemotherapy would require hospitalization for more than a month. Those 34 days became the longest of my life as I tried to juggle my schedule of working, taking care of our four children, and above all, spending as much time with Fran as possible.
I was so tired after each day that I would get home and want to collapse. In addition, I experienced emotional fatigue from fearing the outcome.
What helped me the most was having someone to talk to. Fran has always said, "The day we walked into Dana-Farber, we were placed into the arms of angels." From the beginning, I knew people were there for me when I needed to talk.
I spoke with Fran's doctors daily about how her treatment was progressing, and they would always ask, "How are you and the kids holding up?" I will be forever grateful to the nurses on 7A at Brigham and Women's Hospital and our primary nurse at Dana-Farber, Diane Ransom, who always made themselves available to us and our children. Frequently they would take us aside and answer any questions we had. This support from the nurses, social workers, and doctors formed a life raft that kept us afloat through Fran's treatment.
In addition, my employer supported our family by giving me a flexible schedule and allowing me to leave work when necessary.
After Fran came home from the hospital, we had new challenges. She learned to re-enter the world, literally, one step at a time, walking down the driveway one day, down the street another. You often hear the expression "Live one day at a time," but for us it was often one minute at a time.
My mother had died of breast cancer when she was 53, but I knew that treatments for cancer had greatly improved since then. Still, I was very worried about whether or not Fran's disease would go into remission. Our social worker, Mary Lou Hackett, visited us frequently while Fran was in the hospital, and helped us face our fears. We continued to meet with her on our return visits during the year that followed, and would talk about how our experience with cancer had changed our lives.
Another way I coped with Fran's illness was to give back to the place that provided her care. During treatment, Fran required many transfusions of platelets. Her blood would not accept random donor platelets; the match had to be more precise. Along came a lifesaver: a platelet donor who not only saved Fran's life but changed mine as well. The donor was there for her at a ring of the phone.
During Fran's second round of chemotherapy, I saw the bag of platelets hanging from the pole and thought, "Since someone helped my wife, maybe I could do the same for someone else." That day, I donated platelets for the first time, and I have been donating ever since. I was also a stem cell donor for a 21-year-old man with AML, the same disease my wife had. The feeling of saving a life cannot be put into words.
Looking back, I realize that never did our children or I feel forgotten. I always had someone to talk to about how Fran's treatment was going, how I was holding up, and how the children were coping. The support shown by the doctors, nurses, and psycho-social staff at Dana-Farber helped us through the ordeal we faced.
Fran is healthy today, and after all was said and done, I wanted to give back in other ways. A year after Fran's treatment ended, I was invited to join the Adult Patient and Family Advisory Council as a family member, and saying "yes" changed my life in a way I did not think possible.
Working closely with staff, senior management, and the council members to help Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center become a better place for the next patient walking through the door is an honor I will cherish forever.
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