His neck and underarms were swollen. His skin itched, particularly on his arms. Sleeping at night was impossible.
The symptoms started five years ago. He was 50 then. He’d been fit and healthy all his life. The diagnosis was not pleasant.
He had contracted chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a cancer, says mayoclinic.com, of the blood and bone marrow - bone marrow being “the spongy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made.”
CLL affects a group of white blood cells called lymphocytes, which help the body fight infection. It produces abnormal, ineffective lymphocytes. The abnormal cells may eventually crowd out the healthy cells, killing the patient.
The silver lining: CLL typically progresses more slowly than other types of leukemia.
Initially, doctors monitored the disease’s progress. He would not receive his first chemotherapy treatment for six months.
The treatment eased his symptoms quickly. He was symptom-free for almost one year. But the abnormal cells continued to multiply. His second chemo treatment staved them off for five more months.
One challenge with chemo is that the body quickly becomes resistant to it. Doctors have to apply different chemo blends to overcome resistance. For the next few years, the different blends worked well.
Until November 2012.
His leukemia transformed from a chronic disease to a more aggressive form, acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).
AML multiples abnormal cells at an aggressive rate, posing a real concern for the patient.
But he still had plenty of hope.
All he needed was the right chemo treatment to beat back and stabilize the illness. Then he could receive a bone marrow transplant from a donor.
That procedure would “help re-establish healthy stem cells by replacing unhealthy bone marrow with leukemia-free stem cells that will regenerate healthy bone marrow,” says mayoclinic.com.
He had a donor lined up and took a heavy dosage of chemo, but he did not stabilize. He lined up another donor and was almost ready for the transplant, but his body failed to stabilize again.
Now he is fighting for his life.
His doctors are pulling out all the stops, applying the most aggressive blends of chemo they have. But the AML has resisted and gotten stronger. The doctors say there is only a 20 percent chance the new treatment will work.
What’s worse is that chemo wreaks havoc on the body. Each aggressive treatment requires a lengthy hospital stay. That is where he is as you read this.
His name is Don Krieger, a friend of mine and my family’s for more than 40 years. He’s one of the funniest, most cheerful people you could ever meet. And all who know him marvel at the grace and humor with which he is fighting this disease.
I share his story for the simple reason that he, and so many like him, could use our prayers. Prayer works.
I write about him because we can all do something to help him. We can consider becoming bone marrow donors to help heal others like Don (go to marrow.org).
At the very least, we can donate blood on a regular basis. Patients like Don need whole blood almost daily.
But mainly I write about Don because he is an amazing father, husband, son, brother and friend. Those of us lucky to know him can’t imagine a world without him in it.
Don knows better than most that too many of us take our blessings for granted. He knows that this old maxim is true: “If you have your health, you really do have everything.”
We pray that he beats the odds and makes it back to good health.
‑ Tom Purcell is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. His columns are syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. (Purcell@caglecartoons.com).