What a man named Frank taught me about luck
Shortly after my birthday party, I received another gift: the go-ahead to be discharged. Moving forward, I was to be treated as an outpatient, taking daily oral medications at home and returning to the hospital once a week for IV chemo.
The next several months went by in a blur. I lost what little hair I had remaining. My face swelled in response to a high dose of steroids. I endured side effects ranging from nausea and red urine to hallucinations that had me convinced there were talking lobsters in my bed.
All the while, my healthcare team was on the hunt to find me a stem cell match so I could get the bone marrow transplant I desperately needed. Without it, all the hard work we had put in would be in vain.
Genetic testing via cheek swabs revealed that none of my immediate family were matches, forcing my doctors to broaden their search to the wider national and international stem cell registries.
As the weeks ticked by, I started to wonder if they’d ever find me a donor. And then it happened. Waking up from a nap, I checked my phone to discover a voicemail from one of my oncologists, Dr. Yee.
“We found you a match,” her message said.
There in my gotchies, I proceeded to dance so hard that I nearly puked.
What followed was a whirlwind. The hospital’s transplant team took the reins, scheduling a battery of tests to ensure I could handle the next-level beating my body was about to take. To make room for the healthy stem cells provided by my donor — an anonymous hero from somewhere in Europe — they first needed to wipe out my old, defective stem cells with some extremely powerful chemo and radiation.
They were literally going nuclear on me.
Once I got the thumbs up, I packed my bags and headed to Princess Margaret Hospital for the big show. I wasn’t the only patient on the transplant ward when I arrived. Frank was also there.
I had met Frank a few months earlier. Our weekly chemo schedules at the hospital lined up, and that meant we spent many, many, many hours in waiting rooms together. We didn’t chat much — I kept mostly to myself during treatment. But I became an expert people watcher, which helped me get to know Frank and his wife.
Given how loud Frank was, eavesdropping proved fairly simple. Not loud in a bad way. He was charismatic and quick with a joke, whether it was about the IV in his chest falling out in the shower or how his big belly made his subcutaneous injections a cinch. His brand of dark humour was right up my alley and helped the long days go faster.
I also learned that Frank would be receiving his bone marrow transplant just a week before mine. I took selfish comfort in knowing that I’d have an ally in the trenches with me. Of course, between the strict rules around post-transplant isolation and the fact that most of the time I simply didn’t have the energy to get out of bed, we didn’t see much of each other.
The few times we did cross paths on the transplant ward, we’d be wheeling our IV pumps up and down the corridors for exercise. And each time I saw Frank, he looked worse. I’m sure I looked pretty banged up myself, but this was different. It was clear things were not going well.
A few weeks after my transplant on October 15, 2008, my new stem cells had engrafted and began producing healthy blood on their own. It was a tough go, but bit by bit my counts crept up. My transplant had been successful.
Down the hall, Frank’s had not.
“I’ll see you when you get out,” I said to Frank, shaking his hand after my doctors gave me the all-clear to go home.
Part of me knew I was lying. I’m no doctor, but I had a strong hunch that I was shaking the hand of a dead man. I had lost a lot of weight following my bone marrow transplant. But Frank? Frank was positively skeletal. I did my best to keep my face from betraying the concern I felt.
During a follow-up appointment not long after, I overheard a couple in the waiting room talking about a patient who had died on the 14th floor — the transplant ward. A quick Google search when I returned home yielded an online obituary that confirmed my suspicions.
Frank had died.
Since my coin flip at the beginning of my journey with cancer, I learned that it takes more than luck to overcome obstacles in life. But my experience with Frank reminded me that it can still play a big role.
Two men walked into the hospital for bone marrow transplants. Both had leukemia. Both had the same doctors. One survived. One didn’t. Of course, there were a million and one other factors at play — Frank’s age, the complexity of his case, other underlying conditions. Still, it was a sobering reminder of how things could have easily ended up differently for me.
The idea of luck can be an unnerving one, especially for people like me who put a lot of stock in planning and having a sense of control over situations. But the fact is, as much as we like to think we’re the masters of our destinies, we’re often at the mercy of chance.
A rainy day can foil the weeks you put into organizing the company golf tournament. Unexpected traffic can make you late for a meeting, even if you gave yourself loads of time. Your hopes for a super-productive week may be dashed when a flu bug hits.
The secret, I think, is accepting that luck and life are inseparable and finding ways to be ready for when misfortune strikes. That could mean having an emergency savings account. Or a backup wedding venue indoors in case it pours. Or a roadside assistance membership in the off chance you get a flat on the way home.
And then there’s the life-changing bad luck, like a sudden death in the family or a freak tornado destroying your house. That’s where adaptability comes in. If you step on one of Lady Luck’s landmines, surround yourself with supportive people and start charting a new path forward.
Finally, I think it’s important to remind ourselves of all the good luck in our lives. After all, right now you’re flying 108,000 kilometres per hour through outer space on a rock capable of supporting intelligent life. You’re the culmination of millions of years of evolution. And the sperm that helped make you had to outswim millions of others.
On top of that, take a look at your family tree. If just one of your ancestors failed to meet their mate, you wouldn’t exist. One missed encounter. One decision not to have a second date. One bout of sniffles keeping your great-great-grandmother from going to the town dance. And POOF — no you. The fact that you are here is staggering in its unlikeliness. Take a step back from time to time to marvel at that.
I’m grateful every day for how fortunate I am to be here. I wish Frank had the same luck I did. I think of him often and hope his family is doing okay. I don’t know why I got to live and he didn’t, but I hope I never forget the lessons he taught me about how precarious life can be, to accept that some things are out of my control and to not take what I’ve got for granted.
It was easy to identify the doctors, nurses, radiologists and pharmacists as crucial members of my health team. But as my treatment progressed, I also started to appreciate another essential contributor: the blood donor.
Because as the chemo did its thing, beating the crap out of the cancerous cells in my body, it was also taking a toll on my healthy blood cells. That meant that my blood counts would dip seriously low periodically, and I’d need a blood transfusion or two before I could get back in the ring for another round.
Blood donors became even more important after my bone marrow transplant. That’s because it would take three weeks for my new stem cells to engraft to my marrow and start producing blood.
With my old immune system decimated, my body was left defenceless during that time. Antibiotics and other medications helped prevent infections. But once again, it was the near-daily blood and platelet transfusions that kept me going until my new system kicked in.
To this day, I’m struck by the significance of blood donors during my treatment. Because here’s the thing. I was treated at one of the best cancer hospitals on the planet — a hospital filled with the best healthcare professionals, finest multimillion-dollar pieces of lab equipment and the latest cutting-edge pharmaceuticals.
And yet, none of that would have mattered without blood donors. Then there was the complete stranger on the other side of the ocean who stepped up to donate stem cells so I could get the bone marrow transplant that saved my life.
It’s amazing to think that foundational pieces of our medical system rely on the generosity of everyday people willing to roll up their sleeves to help their fellow community members in times of need.
So if you’re looking for a simple and truly life-saving way to help someone overcome an obstacle, book an appointment to donate blood and register to join your national stem cell registry.