Sunday, August 14, 2011


As I was preparing dinner a few evenings ago, a friend of ours dropped in for a visit. I was particularly happy he’d stopped by because the last time I’d seen him was in a hospital bed. Several months ago, his future was very uncertain at best. Diagnosis: MDS.

Myelodisplasty Syndrome a.k.a. pre-leukemia is nothing to laugh about. This very serious condition is as sneaky as it gets. MDS is a mutation of the bone marrow stem cells. They become discombobulated and ineffective, often without the person knowing it, depending on how severe or mild it is. My friend visited his doctor in Berlin, for no other reason than some slight aches in his joints. Although it doesn’t run in his family, he thought he might have rheumatoid arthritis. He’d gone to a yoga class and had felt that his downward facing dog wasn’t as soothing a pose as it used to be. His doctor took some blood tests. They revealed abnormalities. She referred my friend to an oncologist who diagnosed MDS.

After the initial shock, my friend consulted with the best doctors he could find in Berlin and in Los Angeles. He educated himself on MDS, weighed his options, and then decided against the only cure available. Why would he do that? Because those of us who’ve been diagnosed with deadly diseases grab at straws. I call it distorted hope. When facing an almost incurable illness, you hope for a miracle. Hope of finding a less invasive solution; hope for a potion from an alternative medicine man that’ll fix you thanks to natures wonders. You’re convinced the cure is out there, and that it’s just a matter of you happening upon it. Take my…yada yada yada. The key word here is almost in ‘almost incurable.’

Acupuncture and stem cell therapy helped my friend for a while. It did some good but didn’t free him from frequent blood transfusions. Fresh blood on a regular basis was the only way to keep him relatively active. Without the transfusions, A) he was two weak to function, B) he would die. Thankfully, it’s hard to keep a good man down. And certainly not one with such a strong will to live. He opted for the almost in ‘almost incurable’, a 25% chance of beating this thing.

Approximately 13,000 people are diagnosed with MDS every year, and many more don’t know they have it until it’s too late. They’re more likely to die from symptoms (infection, anemia) than MDS. It’s a progressive illness, which can lead to complete bone marrow failure, and in 1/3 of the cases, leukemia. It usually occurs in the sixty and older age group, and is more prevalent in men than in women. It hardly ever affects children.

The cure: chemotherapy, then bone marrow transplant. Chemo is a bitch. No two ways about it. It’s meant to kill everything good and bad in your body and that’s what it did to my friend. I visited him in the hospital right after he’d completed chemo. He was weak and drugged, but also a man on a mission. Step one accomplished. On to step two: my friend has a brother. Bone marrow stem cell compatibility with a family member or a sibling is not at all guaranteed. Certain criteria must be met and they can be present or not. The closer the match, the better the chances. His brother didn’t have the same blood type, but he turned out to be a 99.9% match. With no stem cells of his own left in him after chemo, my friend received those of his brother.

And this is where I’d like to make a point. Most of us cringe at the thought of a bone marrow transplant, because we envision some invasive, painful procedure for both donor and recipient. This used to be the case. Newsflash: donating bone marrow is as easy as donating blood. My friend’s brother sat for four hours with an IV in his arm. His blood was processed through machines that separated stem cells and T-cells, (which went to my friend) and then was fed back into his body. Done!

Today, my friend is back to his energetic self. His brother, who lives in New York, enjoyed a three-week vacation in L.A., while saving a dear life. My friend has been given a clean bill of health from MDS. If ever any of you are in need of a good deed, I would strongly suggest thinking about donating bone marrow. The need is great, and the act, saving a life, is exponentially greater.

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