COLUMN: Surveys bring Thanksgiving | Opinion | – Montrose Daily Press

Posted: November 26, 2020 at 2:50 am

The arrival every October of a survey from the long-term follow-up care unit (LTFU) at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Care Alliance in Seattle sets in motion a routine. I walk it back from the mailbox, putting it on the kitchen table where it sits unopened for four or five days. Then its moved to the dining room table where it sits for another few days. Then its taken downstairs, still unopened, where its put in a stack of other stuff for a week-plus. The routine continues when a follow-up to the follow-up comes in the mail.

Paraphrasing, the second LTFU letter reads: cmon, man. Take 15 minutes, fill it out, mail it back. Which I do. Could this be avoidance behavior, as per psychologists? Quoting Bill Murray, the casual philosopher, (Stripes, 1981), thats a fact, Jack!

Ive been in remission for 17 years after a stem cell transplant from the Hutch a day after my 51st birthday. The LTFU began following patients in 1990, citing improvement in the mortality of transplantation.

There are about 6,800 people enrolled currently in LTFU. In 2019, 4,764 former patients received the survey and about half of them returned it, said Molly McElroy, the communications director for the Hutch. She added how theres one transplant patient ambulatory and upright from 1971; 100-plus from before 1980.

I was diagnosed in 1998 with a friendly leukemia, but during an annual checkup a few years later, the diagnosis changed, and: the prognosis isnt as promising.

Conversations like that are ineradicable, along with related reminiscences of hallway walks with chemo poles and technicians who warn, youre going to feel a little prick. This is before they draw blood or remove bone marrow. (The first time I heard it, I thought it funny; after the umpteenth, not so much.) Treatment of mantle cell lymphoma required difficult, four-cocktail, hospitalized chemotherapy at St. Marys in Grand Junction. Soon thereafter, we left for the Hutch and transplant.

Hokey and contrived as it sounds, remission from cancer is indeed about some of the people you meet along the way.

Lee Bradley fruit farmer, wine maker, country marketer, located in the northern suburbs of Paonia calmed the hothouse of my mind after diagnosis. We talked about what was coming, sharing common stories about doctors, the Hutch, the determination of it all. Last month, Bradley celebrated 20 years of good health. (His familys market, which sits alongside the north fork of the Gunnison river, is a good place to grab an easy chair and enjoy a summers day under the cottonwoods.)

Early on at the Hutch, a physician who looked like she had just left a Grateful Dead concert with her long hair, granny-glasses and leather-fringed jacket, calmly explained options. Including a clinical trial for which she had written the protocol. As a result, Im still getting mail from the LTFU. Dr. Leona Holmberg, MD, PhD., continues to get it done as a physician, researcher and oncology professor at the U. of Washington.

We also met a nattily dressed doctor with great humor. He was placing into my chest a dual Hickman catheter which would expeditiously transport stem cells, chemo, nutrition, blood products and whatever else. (A terrific invention, but not a good look on a beach. It flops around a lot.) He flirted good-naturedly with Susan, who was maybe 10 inches taller. Are you the same guy whose name is on this? I cracked wise about him getting a commission; smiling, he replied that hed done all right. Dr. Robert O. Hickman, who was a founding member of the Hutch bone marrow transplant team, died last year at 92, his invention still widely used.

After transplant, my blood counts were stubbornly stuck at zero. The body language of the doctor-posse when they rolled through my room in the mornings wasnt encouraging. Then I caught an infection and spent 10 days in isolation. My nurse recognized despair. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, she sat on the bed and without saying a word, pulled me close. For less than a minute. She likely broke a slew of HR rules, but Corinne Vaniers humanity was the tonic. The next day, my counts started to move north. Ten years after the transplant, we had lunch in Seattle and continue to be in touch.

Julia Vega, the daughter of longtime friends and a newspaper publisher pal, was a year younger than our son. She had a pelvic cancer and enjoyed some initial remission. Her dad and I shared stories about the Hutch, the Pete Gross House (apartments) and Dr. Holmberg, also her physician.

Vega was a theater student at Arizona State U. when diagnosed and instead of dropping out and taking it easy, she forged through doing the chemo, going to classes, participating in productions, graduating. I enjoyed her company as a middle schooler in North Carolina, and again at a newspaper convention where she accompanied her father, fragile thin and wearing a wig. We have a photo together from that meeting. Whenever I hear one of her favorite songs, Bob Dylans Shooting Star, I recall her grace.

A story about Chris Mesaric was framed and placed along the walls of a Hutch examination clinic. My brother and I had flown to Seattle to nail down the second opinion and I happened on it while he was wrapping up a conversation with yet another oncologist. Mesaric had grown up here, MHS Class of 1987, and had worked as an airframe mechanic for Boeing in Seattle before returning to Montrose. The docs had given him little chance in 1992 of surviving aplastic anemia, a rare bone marrow disease. He was also told that there would be no children, either. Yet he and Robin are the parents of two lovely daughters.

Mesarics brave fight went on for 11 years, receiving a Hutch transplant in 2001. He was inspirational, although we never met. We left the Hutch after five months, arriving home the day before Thanksgiving, 2003; Mesaric, 35, passed three weeks later. I know his folks, Frank and Linda Mesaric, and whenever I see Frank around town, his big, welcoming voice is at once a comfort and a knowing.

There were good times, of course, during the procedures, before the transplant. Routines that got us away from the grimness. After morning bloodwork, we had a daily 16-block hike to the Barnes & Noble bookstore in downtown Seattle. One day, former Sen. Gary Hart was spotted in the shelves, browsing, and we chatted. There were plenty of windows to look into, galleries of all sorts, and all the bits and bobs and fish tossing from the Pike Place Market. Even a free monorail to ride. We enjoyed a couple of nights out with live music at Dimitrious Jazz Alley. William visited from Alaska and the three of us caught a Mariners/White Sox game at Safeco Field. Ryanns down-the-elevator, in-the-building interim school provided friendships and field trips. There was retail therapy. The downtown flagship Nordstroms store provided almost 400,000 square feet of distraction and attraction. (After we returned to Montrose, they had to lay off the lobbys pianist. Jes kidding.)

Theres a picture of the four of us on the refrigerator from Day One. Bald and bloated, Im unrecognizable. After Susan declared we can do this, upon turning that apartments front door key, thats when the recovery, like the new bone marrow, began to graft itself.

The piece of mail in October confirms it. Im thankful for those follow-up people who still have my address.

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COLUMN: Surveys bring Thanksgiving | Opinion | - Montrose Daily Press

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