The Network - Issue 1, Spring 2011
Double Cord Blood Transplant Beats the Odds
Facing a rapid-growth form of leukemia, Hector Walker needed a stem cell transplant…fast. But finding a match wasn't going to be easy. His wife Janet shares their remarkable story of hope and generosity.
By: Janet Wheeler
On August 19, 2009, after having spent the weekend at our cottage complaining of a headache and joint pain, my husband-Hector Walker of North Vancouver, BC-walked onto an elevator at Vancouver General Hospital to get his blood work results from the day before. After pressing the button for the sixth floor, he turned to me and asked, "Sixth-floor Leukemia BMT? What's leukemia?"
A few minutes later Hector sat stunned and scared in the doctor's office. He had just heard his diagnosis…Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). He would come to know these three words intimately and they would change his life forever.
ALL is a cancer of the lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell used to fight infection), and is most common in childhood with another peak in old age. With ALL, the body produces a lot of unformed cells known as "blasts." However, because the blasts are abnormal, they do not develop into lymphocytes. Instead the abnormal cells grow rapidly, crowding out the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets needed by the body. If left undiagnosed, even for a few weeks, the disease can be fatal.
Hector was an otherwise healthy 58-year-old who we thought of as "58 going on 45." He was in excellent shape and very health conscious. We initially assumed he could be developing arthritis. Luckily, Hector's family doctor, Dr. Ron Abrahams, had sent him for a blood test immediately, and he was at the hematologist's office the next day for his diagnosis.
Over the next five months, under the watchful care of nurse Elsie Williams and her amazing team at Vancouver General's Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) ward, Hector underwent his treatment. I felt helpless as I watched him suffer through the brutal effects of chemotherapy and radiation. He bounced in and out of lucidness as his body dealt with 41 days of high fevers.
Three months after diagnosis, our only hope for a cure seemed to be a bone marrow transplant. However, we soon learned that finding a match for Hector, who is Black, would not be easy. There was no match within our family, and only 0.5 percent of the people on the OneMatch stem cell and marrow registry have identified themselves as Black.
Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Hector came to Canada in the early 1970s. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a B.A. in philosophy and went on to a rewarding career as a Child and Youth Counselor at the Broadway Youth Resource Centre in Vancouver. He has a 21-year-old daughter, I have a 37-year-old daughter, and we have 3½-year-old twin granddaughters. Hector had a lot he wanted to live for, but his chances of survival without a transplant were slim to none.
While still not knowing from one moment to the next if Hector would live, our family and friends began a desperate campaign to find a stem cell match. With the unwavering support of the OneMatch team at Canadian Blood Services, we spread the message throughout Canada, the U.S., England, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, and Jamaica. Using the Bob Marley song title "One Love," we created the One Love, One Match campaign, distributing posters that told Hector's story. We tried to educate people and encourage everyone we could to register as a potential donor. We are so thankful for our dear family, friends and all those who shared their care and concern for Hector.
As we waited hopefully for that illusive donor to be found, there was a sad irony in having to apply for disability benefits, fill in power-of-attorney documents and wills. We tried to stay positive that none of this paperwork would be needed.
In November 2009, Hector found out that a cord blood donor had been found…actually two cord blood donors!
On January 20, 2010, Dr. Yasser Abou Mourad of Vancouver General's fantastic BMT team performed a double cord blood stem cell transplant. After all that waiting, Hector said the transplant was anti-climatic: "Just hanging a few more bags on my IV pole." We then started the wait. After 25 days-on Valentine's Day 2010-we were told Hector's white count was starting to improve.
This year, on January 20, we all celebrated Hector's first anniversary of his transplant. We like to refer to it as his first birthday. He is feeling a million times better than he was a year and a half ago, but acknowledges he is not back to his pre-leukemia fitness level…YET! He goes for one (sometimes two) walks a day with our German Shepherd, Stella. Every day is different. He's not quite ready for the gym yet, but he does try to use our stationary bike as much as he can. He is back to playing bass and keyboards, which is a huge accomplishment as it indicates his coordination and focus is coming back.
Through it all we learned the importance of staying positive and never giving up hope. At one point, in November 2009, Hector was very, very ill. The situation did not look good, but the nursing staff and doctors at VGH were amazingly upbeat and positive and that kept us going. However, without that generous donation of life saving stem cells from cord blood, this story would have had a very different ending.
With his twin granddaughters by his side, Hector Walker celebrates his “first birthday” one year after his double cord blood stem cell transplant.