I knew it was going to be a long hard ride and that I might not survive.
During the 2005 holiday season, Harold noticed that he was tired and dragging. He assumed that, like many people, he just needed to lose a little weight and get in shape. But after struggling to walk up a staircase alongside an older life-long smoker and later getting a cold he couldn't kick, Harold went to see his doctor.
The doctor's office ran blood tests and told him they would get back to him with the results. The next day, he was playing in a golf tournament with his doctor, who also happens to be a friend. The doctor's office called his cell phone and told him to go immediately to a hospital. "I thought they had it wrong so I passed the phone off to my doctor" he said.
"He just went white. So I knew I was in trouble."
They drove to Northside where the doctors confirmed their fears. "They said it was acute leukemia. Dr. Nishan Fernando, an oncologist said, ‘you need to go to a specialist and the best one is at Northside.'"
The next day, Harold was admitted to Northside's Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. He would spend the next 3½ months as an in-patient, undergoing chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant (BMT).
"I was realistic, but not pessimistic," said Harold, who knew that the odds were against him. If the chemo didn't work, a bone marrow transplant may be necessary to survive. The chances of finding a bone marrow match are only about 1 in 4 among siblings; outside of siblings, matches are extremely rare. His 87-year old mother insisted on being tested, but Harold's younger brother Glenn was a match.
Unfortunately, Glenn was also facing health problems of his own. "He had been put in the hospital a week or so before I was hospitalized with congenital heart failure," remembers Harold. "So it was a real issue getting him down from New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Harold's wife Jeanne was facing the hard realities of their situation. This was going to be her last year of teaching before retirement. She and Harold were scheduled to meet with a retirement planner in Feb to discuss retirement options but Harold couldn't leave the BMT Unit. As she left the hospital to attend the meeting, one of the doctors advised her to plan on retiring alone because Harold was not likely to survive his illness.
"The BMT Unit became like home and the staff became like family to Harold and his family and friends. Nobody's got what this place has got."
Harold, ("Howie" to friends and family) is a very social person. It was important to have family and friends around him. During the long hospitalization, he would receive many visitors. "They would just throw on the hospital blue suits and come in to be with me. That is one of the special things about Northside. They understand the importance of the emotional side of a patient and not just the disease." But as the treatment progressed, he was too weak to continue seeing large groups of friends. He began spending more and more of his time with his wife, his daughter, and Northside's nurses.
"The nurses were amazing." The department head, would often come in and talk and make his bed - a simple gesture that demonstrated how willing the whole staff was to help out. Harold knew that he was more than just a number.
Harold also developed a special relationship with the BMT doctors, especially Dr. Kent Holland and Dr. Lawrence Morris.
You always hear the nightmare stories about chemo, but it wasn't that way with me. I never got real sick until after the transplant.
"I can't say enough about the entire staff. They saved my life."
When several rounds of chemo didn't work, the transplant became necessary. Glenn came to Northside Hospital to save his older brother's life. Although it took two days, he successfully donated enough stem cells and Harold was prepared for transplant with a final round of chemo.
The transplant took place on April 14th, 2006 – Good Friday. "You always hear the nightmare stories about chemo, but it wasn't that way with me. I never got real sick until after the transplant."
A common complication during transplants, graft versus host disease (GVHD), is a condition in which bone marrow sees all of your other organs as foreign bodies and attacks them. The body is already in a weakened state from chemotherapy so the process is difficult, but it can also kill any remaining leukemia. Harold's doctor's warned him that the worst part would come a few days after the transplant.
"I almost didn't make it past that stage," Harold remembers. He was placed in intensive care as his body fought through the final stages of the transplant.
On May 15th, he was released from the hospital. However, because he lived over 50 miles away, his doctors wanted him to be closer to the hospital. So Northside made arrangements for Harold and Jeanne to stay nearby and commute for daily treatments at the BMT clinic. Finally, Howie got to spend nights at home but continued to commute from Dawsonville to the clinic.
Since leaving Northside, Harold's daughter Celeste was married and made them happy grandparents. She also started a charity golf tournament to raise money for BMT patients with medical conditions not covered by insurance.
During his long hospital stay, Harold would send emails to his friends and family with updates. During his darkest days, writing the emails was very therapeutic".
While traveling on business in Charleston after his recovery, Howie visited a friend who had been sent all the emails. His friend rarely responded to and Howie jokes "He must be the most computer illiterate man in the world. "I never thought he was even reading them.
The friend handed Howie a folder containing every e-mail he had been sent during the treatment, including those sent by friends while he was in intensive care that Howie had never seen. The friend in Charleston had written on the folder "Diary of a Living Man."