Our Journey in Photos
Our life before cancer...
August 21, 2015
On August 21, 2015, Matt and I headed off on a belated honeymoon for our 6-month anniversary! Our first stop was Coeur d'Alene, Northern Idaho, where my mom and stepdad live. By the time we arrived in Coeur d'Alene (after about 30 hours of traveling from New Zealand, through Australia and L.A.), Matt was feeling pretty terrible. On the flight from Australia to L.A., he had started feeling really sick and feverish. We chalked it up to New Zealand's winter and all the cold and flu bugs going around our offices, compounded by two sleepless nights (one night of traveling and the night before getting ready for our trip and leaving the house around 3am to catch our flight).
I thought a night or two of good sleep would be all he needed to shake off his bug, but Matt ended up spending most of the next two days indoors in bed, rather than on the lake or in the outdoors -- opportunities he would typically never pass up.
We had arrived in the U.S. on a Friday, and by Sunday I was starting to wonder if maybe something more serious was wrong. He didn't seem to be getting better, and in fact, he seemed to be getting worse. Maybe he had a really bad strain of the flu and needed medication. Or maybe he had something more serious like pneumonia and needed antibiotics.
On Sunday night, I woke up around 3am to find Matt standing in the bathroom. He had sweated through the sheets, and then through a towel that he had put down on top of the sheets and was looking for another towel. That was when I decided we were going to the doctor first thing in the morning. I mentioned this to Matt and he agreed. That's when I really began to worry. Matt would never agree to go to the doctor (especially when we were on vacation) unless there was something seriously wrong.
August 24, 2015
On Monday morning, we headed to the Emergency Room. We were hoping the doctors could give him a z-pack or some sort of medication to kick this thing to the curb before we left for California on Wednesday. By the time we got the ER, Matt was feeling a bit better. The dcotors ran some blood tests, and as we waited for the results to come back, Matt spent his time reading, napping, and poking fun at himself for allowing me to take him to the doctor for what was certainly just a bug...
August 24, 2015
Less than an hour later, the blood tests were back...
I have never in my life seen a doctor's demeanor change so drastically as I did that day. When we first arrived, the doctor who saw us was jovial, lighthearted, and had all the confidence of someone who was certain he could fix us up and send us on our way in no time.
When he re-entered the room an hour later, it was as if all life had been sucked out of him. His expression was one of sadness and heartache and concern. I had never seen anything like it on a doctor before, and even before he began to speak, I knew something was seriously wrong. Still, I could never have imagined just how wrong. There is nothing that could have prepared me for what he was about to tell us.
He said Matt had no white blood cells. I had no idea what this meant, but I knew from his face that it was something bad. He began to explain... no white blood cells means he has no immune system...
Okay, but why would he not have an immune system? This makes no sense. I really wished I had paid more attention in biology class.
He explained that his immune system must be battling (and losing the battle) against a very serious disease (hepatitis, Lyme's Disease, HIV)...
Either that, or a he had a blood cancer.
That was the moment that all four walls that had been holding up my entire world came crashing down into a cloud of dust all around me. I immediately ran to Matt, climbed onto the stretcher that he was lying on, and began to cry. I knew this was not the reaction I was supposed to have. I was supposed to be strong and assure him that everything would be okay, but there was no strength to be found within my body at that moment. Everything inside me had turned to putty.
We were admitted to the hospital right away and were immediately put into isolation to try to protect him from any germs. In the matter of an instant we had gone from "I hope there's a pill for this" to "There's no pill for this; also, you're now officially fighting for your life, so gear up."
We were assigned an infectious disease specialist and an oncologist (quite possibly the scariest word in the world). We crossed our fingers and hoped for an infectious disease. Anything but cancer. Please...
August 26, 2015
Wednesday was our 6-month wedding anniversary. We were supposed to be traveling to California that day for a friend's wedding that weekend, but instead, we were sitting in the hospital, in isolation, waiting for a diagnosis. Matt was needing constant blood transfusions at this point (and platelet transfusions and IVs for hydration and drugs for the fevers...), so he always had an IV tree attached to him. We were told we should walk everyday to keep his strength, so we brought along the tree on our strolls through the hospital hallways.
That night we ordered "room service" and celebrated our mid-year anniversary from the hospital room. My, what a difference 6 months can make.
August 26, 2015
The diagnosis came later that Wednesday afternoon. We had had two days to spend willing the diagnosis to be some sort of serious, but non-life-threatening disease. We had already come to terms with the fact that, whatever the illness turned out to be, it wouldn't be good, but surely it didn't have to be anything life-threatening... right?
The oncologist came that afternoon, and delivered the verdict. It was cancer. Leukemia. A very aggressive form of blood cancer. Acute Myeloid Leukemia, is the medical term. All I heard was "Leukemia...Cancer...Aggressive...".
My vision blurred as the remnants of the walls that had once held up my world buckled under the impact of this soul-crushing news. It was too much to process. I was in a half-dream state. None of this was real. Or maybe it was just partially real. The hospital is real, the doctor is real, but the diagnosis is not real. Something is wrong. This doesn't make sense. Clearly the doctor doesn't understand that healthy, happy people don't just randomly get cancer. The universe is off. Who's running this show? What that F&$% is going on?!?!?!?
I don't remember any of the conversation after that. We may have discussed treatment options and chemotherapy -- at least that's what I assume we would have discussed -- but I couldn't tell you because I have no recollection of the rest of that conversation. I remember Matt sounding calm and asking some educated questions, but I could not tell you what those questions were or what answers were given.
I don't remember much from the rest of that day. It was all a foggy haze, blanketed by a vague understanding that life as we knew it would never be the same again.
August 28, 2015
On Friday, the chemo began. The results of the bone marrow biopsy had revealed that almost all of Matt's blood was cancerous and it was spreading rapidly. We needed to start immediate treatment. In Matt's ever-logical, ever forward-thinking state, one of the questions he had asked the doctor was how the chemo would affect our ability to have children in the future. Upon learning that it may impair our ability to have kids, Matt asked if we could freeze sperm before the chemo began. The doctor agreed to push the chemo back to Friday so we could try to freeze his sperm, but unfortunately, Matt's health was deteriorating rapidly, and he was too sick to make a deposit.
We began the chemo that evening, and things quickly started spiraling downward after that. The toxins of the chemo, combined with the shock of the cancer cells being destroyed (and released) in his body sent his body into a state of shock. He began violently convulsing, losing his breath, and could only speak through gasps and panicked whispers. I climbed on top of him to try to keep him from shaking so badly, but my efforts were futile. The Code team rushed in from ICU and managed to stabilize him and calm the shaking with some pretty hardcore drugs. As Matt drifted off into a coma-like state, I layed next to him, holding his hand and whispering breathing techniques I had learned in yoga in his ear.
I don't remember going to sleep that night, but at one point I must have climbed into my fold-out chair that turned into a bed and managed to shut my eyes before we were awakened by Matt's soaring fevers a few hours later.
The next day, Matt collapsed in my arms as I tried to help him to the bathroom, and the Code team rushed in once again. This time we were moved to ICU where Matt was under critical care.
August 29, 2015
We spent the next few days in ICU as Matt battled fevers up to 107 degrees (42 C). I begged doctors and nurses to give me some sort of assurance that he would make it through this, but they always responded with something evasive like, "Do you have family here?" I frantically called one of Matt's closest friends -- a surgeon -- in the middle of the night, repeatedly, to seek his calm, comforting, ominscient assurance that this is all part of the process, and Matt will be just fine. But even James couldn't disguise the fear in his voice during those midnight calls.
My mom and my best friend Alia (who had flown up from California to be by my side), comforted me as I sobbed in the hallway outside Matt's room. We would cry together, and then I would stop crying and resolve that if no one was going to give me the assurance I needed, I would give it to myself. I would stomp out my fears and disbelief, arm myself with hope and determination, and march back into that room, prepared to fight any battle that lay ahead. I would monitor his breathing, his heartrate, and his fevers. I would change his sheets several times a night after he drenched them in sweat. I would monitor nurses and chase down doctors in hallways, in cafeterias, on vacation... (I managed to secure the cell phone number of one of Matt's doctors and did not hesitate to call or text him, whether he was working or not.)