Laurie's Story: Celebrating year one. Celebrating survival.

 


At 38 years old, Laurie was teaching pre-school, working as a personal trainer, leading her daughters' Girl Scout troops and volunteering at their schools. 

In an almost superhero kind of way, she spent her weekends running triathlons and half-marathons in between time she set aside for her children Elise and Karleigh, and husband Tom.

After a lifetime of pushing her body to the limit, Laurie was prepared for almost anything. Except cancer.

During a routine appointment with her gynecologist, Laurie was told her hemoglobin levels were unusually low. So low, they thought the machine was broken. She was referred to a cancer specialist for further testing.

After months of tests and diagnoses, doctors told Laurie she had myeloidysplasia. 

"Every time they thought I had something, I'd go online, and it was always, 'No cure. No cure. No cure,'" she said. "When I finally found out about the myeloidysplasia, I found a society online and called. A lady there kind of casually told me that it would develop into leukemia within one year. I was shocked. Devastated."

Doctors began testing Laurie's bone marrow each month for cancerous cells to monitor the leukemia's development.

"I was playing a huge waiting game," she said. "The doctor told me I should interview other physicians to find the best treatment. So I went to Seattle and Dallas.

"The doctor in Seattle started crying when he met with me. He said, 'I feel so sorry for you. There's probably no hope.' He told me to go home and get treatment because if something did happen, my family couldn't get to Seattle fast enough. I could be dead overnight. The doctor in Dallas wanted to do only chemotherapy, but he said I probably wouldn't recover fully. We didn't like those options."

When Laurie returned to Atlanta, she decided to stop taking the bone marrow tests.

"Not long after that, I ran a half-marathon and couldn't finish," she said. "I was sweating bullets and I thought, it's time. I have it."

Laurie went to Dr. Lawrence Morris at the Blood & Marrow Transplant Program at Northside Hospital, where she had given birth to both her children, and he confirmed she had full-blown acute myeloid leukemia.

"It's the worst kind of leukemia you can have," she said. "But the doctors at Northside didn't make me feel like I had a death sentence. They were just wonderful. They told me I wasn't a statistic. I was me, and I could beat the statistics. It was just what I needed."

In 2001, Laurie enrolled in the National Marrow Donor Program to find a match for a bone marrow transplant.

Before anything could be done though, she had to start intensive chemotherapy in the Northside BMT unit. She insisted they wait until after Christmas. 

"Christmas is when I told my children," she said. "It was very, very hard, mainly because they couldn't come in the unit. My immune system was so low that if I caught anything, I could die. I had to tell them Nana was going to come take care of them for a while. That was the hardest thing."

Thirty days later, after several rounds of chemotherapy, the NMDP database found a bone marrow match. Before they could schedule a transplant though, the donor disappeared.

"It was like she vanished off the face of the earth," Laurie said. "It was unbelievable."

Because doctors had already destroyed all of Laurie's bone marrow in preparation for the transplant, they had to continue with chemo until they could find another donor. She was discouraged and stuck in a "holding pattern."

"During that time, the care at Northside was phenomenal," Laurie said. "I can't tell you how good the nurses were. They became my family, and I became theirs. I saw nurses that would cry when someone passed away. It was painful. It was hard. I didn't want to do anything, but I trusted them."

The database finally found another 10-point match from a young Tennessee man. The operation was successful, and Laurie's blood levels immediately rebounded. Her emotions didn't.

"Shortly after the transplant, I stopped talking. I went into myself and just stopped talking to my mother, who had come every day to see me. I don't know what happened. I guess I just began to take things out on her," Laurie said. "That's when I really saw how much the staff at Northside cared about me."

Dr. Kent Holland also with the Blood and Marrow Transplant program at Northside, who had stood by Laurie throughout her difficult journey, talked with her by her bedside one afternoon. "He said, 'Laurie, you've come this far. Tell me what's wrong. You can't do this to her. You're torturing her," Laurie said. "That was what I needed."

A few months after the transplant, Laurie developed graft versus host disease (GVHD), which occurs when a donor's cells start attacking the cells in the recipient's body. She returned frustrated and disappointed, and was placed on several different medications including steroids and drugs to prevent her body from rejecting the bone marrow.

"That's when it was bad," Laurie said. "At this point, it was past the 100-day crucial period following my transplant. I thought I was out of the woods, but that's when I needed the nurses the most. They were my lifesavers. One of the most memorable times is when one of the nurses washed my hair. It was a simple task, but it meant so much to me. She didn't have to do that."

Other things, like transporting Laurie in a wheelchair to her daughter's doctor's appointment and helping her put on tights designed to improve her circulation set the staff apart from other hospitals.

"After that, I got hemolytic uremia and they had to put me through plasmapheresis to clean my blood," Laurie said. "It took four to five days for about four hours at a time. It made me so cold, and those nurses were constantly wrapping me in blankets and encouraging me."

That encouragement, coupled with the love for her family, helped Laurie survive.

"At a certain point, I was really sick. I knew I had a conscious decision to either live or die," she said. "And I knew if I let go it would have been OK. But I wanted to fight. I couldn't do it; I couldn't die because of my kids. I just couldn't let go. When it was all over with, my doctors told me I survived because of my grit and determination. They told me I was the reason I pulled through."

After two months in the hospital fighting graft versus host and hemolytic uremia, Laurie was ready to go home and be with her family.

"We had stopped telling the kids I was coming home because the date kept getting postponed. "Then one day, I surprised them by being there at the bus stop after school," she said. "They just ran to me."

Now that Laurie is approaching another year anniversary since the transplant, she's constantly reflecting on why she survived.

Laurie now works as a medical technician in the microbiology unit at Northside Hospital in Alpharetta. She occasionally talks to patients in the BMT unit and answers their questions about what to expect before and after a transplant.

"Cancer has really changed me. In a way, I feel reset," she said. "I have different priorities now. Some people want to travel the world. For me, all the traveling I need to do is go to my living room and feel my children's and my husband's arms around me. That's all the excitement I need." 

 

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