I would like to dedicate this post to my two mothers, Diana Schwatka and Monina von Opel. Without these two incredible, dedicated, strong, fighting women, none of this would have been possible. They have provided 24-hour, unwavering comfort, support, love, structure, sustenance, discipline, laughter. The three chicas we are, and when we are together, anything is possible.
One hundred days after a bone marrow transplant, a stem cell patient celebrates his or her “100 Days.” This day marks the first milestone, the end of what is called “early recovery.”
As my one hundredth day approaches, I am overcome by a nagging sense of doom in the back of my mind that something will prevent me from going home. This feeling was exacerbated yesterday by my stem cell transplant doctor: she noticed a spike in my liver enzymes and will not let me go back home to New York until the numbers drop down to a normal range. This rise could be due to the simple overload of a particular medication, but it also could develop into something as serious as Graft vs. Host Disease (GVHD), when the donor’s cells (graft) attack patient’s cells (host), as these cells are foreign to them.
I went through a little battle with GVHD of the upper digestive tract last month. It put me back in the hospital for six days and onto steroids, where I promptly shed ten pounds off my thin body and my muscles dissolved. I am still on the steroids, still trying to build muscle while the steroids eat away at my muscle. I have continued to lose weight and have settled at a bleak 101 lbs on a 5’9” frame.
Nevertheless, this GVHD of the upper GI tract is completely under control. There are no signs that it is still there and I seem to have gotten through this setback. The doctors are not worried. And it’s mostly my vanity that has been shaken at this point: I can’t bear to look at my skeletal self, standing in front of the mirror under the ‘50’s-style flower petal lighting fixtures in the bathroom.
But back to the liver situation… On the drive home from the doctor, as I waded through the emotions this news had churned up, a thought boldly announced itself. This was just one more bump in the road. One more accomplishment waiting to be fulfilled. Starting with the more recent hurdles and working backwards, I began to visualize each and every challenge I have gotten through, many of which I thought insurmountable, and that fire of resolve started burning again.
As soon as we got back, I made a beeline to the gym. I was a woman on a mission. I purelled the entire elliptical machine, rolled on my blue plastic gloves, arranged my mask snuggly around my ears and nose, and settled into the enormous foot pads. I nested my $80 state of the art apple earbuds into my ears, and turned on my iPod to an absurd volume that made my eardrums pulsate. I started to dance. Swinging my hips, throwing my head back, all the while pedaling, pedaling forward. Then things got a little crazier. I started to sing, first sort of humming but quickly progressing to the kind of singing you do in the shower as you are channeling Beyoncé belting out "Run the World (Girls)." Yes, there were two other patrons there – but one was gabbing on the phone so I considered myself entitled to this small luxury. I felt energized, strong, ready to beat this hurdle just as I have so many times before. I couldn’t help grinning – I think I am finally understanding this whole endorphins phenomenon – they really do make you happier!
On September 21st, I will be celebrating my 100 Days no matter what my counts are, no matter what the situation is, because I have accomplished too much not to bask in the exhilarating feeling of knowing what I am capable of.