Transplant recipient and financial contributor Michael Stewart opens up about his relatively smooth transplant journey, and how he hopes to pay it forward to those who endure a different experience.
Michael Stewart, a husband and father of three teenage boys, is grateful for so many things in his life – including his transplant journey. In 2004, Michael was feeling fatigued, and so he set up a doctor appointment. As someone who “works too much” and travels a lot for his job, feeling tired was normal, but this time something felt “off.” Michael’s intuition was right, and after receiving lower than normal blood count tests, his doctors diagnosed him with hairy cell leukemia.
Michael received treatment for his illness, and within 6-7 weeks of treatment, everything felt like it was “back to normal.” Michael continued to be monitored for a while, but after 3-4 years they told him he no longer needed to come in for routine checks. His leukemia had come and gone, and Michael was ready to move on with his life.
Fast forward a few years, to 2013, and Michael started feeling fatigued again. He thought to himself, “I’m getting older and travelling too much… that must be it.” But just to be safe, Michael went back to his doctor. This time, his blood counts had bottomed-out. It seemed as though his hairy cell leukemia had come back. Only a few days later, Michael was admitted to the ICU with sepsis issues, which occur when the body’s immune response to an infection triggers inflammatory responses throughout the body. The inflammation brought on by sepsis can trigger a series of changes that can damage multiple organ systems, causing them to fail. It is also most dangerous in older patients or those with weakened immune systems from treatment – like Michael.
This time Michael spent more than 45 days in the hospital (with a few short visits back home), but his blood counts just weren’t bouncing back like they had in 2004. The doctors performed a biopsy of his bone marrow, which didn’t indicate anything additional was wrong. Michael again followed his intuition, and after not feeling back to 100%, he decided to meet with a doctor who specialized in hairy cell leukemia to see if he could figure out what might be wrong.
Near the end of 2013, Michael found out from his new doctor that he hadn’t suffered a re-occurrence of his hairy cell leukemia – he had in fact developed myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). MDS affects the bone marrow and blood, causing the blood-forming cells in the marrow to slow down, or even stop, making all three types of blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. It was discovered that his MDS had likely been brought on by the two rounds of leukemia treatment he had received in the past, and the damage to his bone marrow was so severe that his blood counts couldn’t recover on their own. Michael’s doctor started him on a temporary treatment regimen, but the reality was, Michael would need a marrow transplant to survive.
Time for transplant
All of Michael’s siblings were tested, but none was a full match. As Michael continued his temporary treatment plan, his doctor started a search of the Be The Match Registry®, and luckily there were multiple match options identified. Although Michael felt like everything was back to normal – and his temporary treatment was working – he was told that every day he continued that treatment, his risk for developing yet another disease increased. Michael met with doctors at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and decided to be proactive by pursuing the marrow transplant while he was relatively healthy – knowing he would eventually need it – rather than waiting until his health stated to deteriorate. As a result, he and his family moved from Colorado to Washington to begin the process.
Although Michael had multiple match options identified through the Be The Match Registry, a few of the potential donors backed out for various reasons. Finally, a 24-year-old female – a complete stranger to Michael – came through. She was a 10 out of 10 match, and agreed to go through with donation to help save the life of someone she’d never met. Michael’s initial transplant date was scheduled for right after Thanksgiving, but after a few setbacks, it finally landed on New Year’s Eve. Michael rang in the New Year in arguably the most amazing way – receiving the life-saving marrow he desperately needed – from a complete stranger.
Michael stayed near the clinic for a few months after transplant – with regular visits to the lab and clinic every day. He was allowed to work (from home) and spend time with his family, but he had to avoid public places and his energy levels were very low. At day 12 he engrafted – meaning his body accepted the donated marrow. Around day 45, he was finally able to see his dog again. And at day 98, he got to go home … 22 days earlier than expected.
While Michael was receiving treatment, his family was always by his side. In total, they spent about 150 days living together in a new state, but they embraced the experience and to this day they even look back on it fondly. Michael’s children were able to attend school at “The Hutch” along with other children whose family members were there receiving treatment, providing a sense of community and support that helped them through that difficult time.
Michael’s recovery has been phenomenal. Today, still less than a year out from his transplant date, Michael and his family are back in their home state of Colorado, and Michael is back to working full time and traveling. While he notices a lower ability to “bounce back” after a long travel day, he otherwise feels like he’s pretty much back to normal.
Thank you is not enough
As Michael reflects on his transplant journey, he feels grateful of course, but he also feels lucky. According to Michael, he had it “easy” – too easy, and too stress-free compared to so many of those who endure a long and frightening process, sometimes without a happy ending.
“No stress, no desperate pleas for friends and family to be tested. No social media campaign. Because many people all over the world decided to take the simple step of being tested, I had a match. I have a chance, and a very good one at that, to see my three boys graduate from high school, get married, have their own kids. All because someone did something for someone they didn’t even know and may never meet.”
– Michael Stewart
That is why, when Michael decided to give a large financial contribution of $25,000 to Be The Match, he did so out of pure gratefulness. Gratefulness for his relatively smooth transplant journey and positive outcome, especially knowing he had it easier than so many.
Michael is grateful to Be The Match for providing him with access to multiple donor match options, and so grateful for his donor who never hesitated to save a stranger’s life. She donated through bone marrow extraction which took 4-6 hours. A 24-year-old who was asked to spend all day at the hospital right before New Year’s Eve said “Of course I will,” and Michael is forever grateful for that. “Thank you isn’t enough … you just can’t even put that into words”, he says.
Michael is also determined to turn his gratefulness into action. He is dedicated to furthering the mission of Be The Match through his financial contribution and awareness efforts, to help those who have a harder time finding a match – particularly those with ethnically diverse backgrounds.
Michael worked with Keith Stout, Director of Major and Planned Gifts at Be The Match, to ensure that his financial contribution could help in a number of ways – financially assisting patients and their families, adding more potential marrow donors to the registry, and helping advance research to improve transplant outcomes. Michael hopes that his contribution can help ensure that one day no one has to wonder if they will find a match, let alone survive the process.
“I am blessed and lucky that I’ve had the outcome that I’ve had. Be The Match gave me the opportunity to have lots of matches. I’m a lucky beneficiary of what had already been accomplished before I needed a transplant, and the people who were already on the registry. Now I want to help grow the registry even more, so that other people can be told they have lots and lots of matches too.”
– Michael Stewart
Interested in joining Michael in supporting Be The Match?
Join the registry – you could be the match that someone is searching for.
Give – big or small, financial gifts help continue our mission to help patients and their families.
For more information on major gift opportunities contact Keith Stout, Director of Major and Planned Gifts, at 763-406-8150 or sstout@NMDP.ORG