In 2015, Matt and I were living in New Zealand. We're both from California originally, but our sense of adventure led us overseas. We settled down in Wellington, and made a beautiful life for ourselves there. Matt was a Structural Engineer at a global consulting firm, and I was a Corporate Attorney at one of the largest companies in the country. We lived in a gorgeous villa overlooking the city and the harbor. Our commute to work was a 20-minute walk along the waterfront. My desk looked out across the bay at a beautiful island. After work, we'd meet up with friends in the city, and on weekends, we'd escape to the beautiful countryside.
Our walk to work
Our holidays involved trips to Bali, Singapore, Australia, or remote getaways on the North or South Island. Life was perfect.
In February 2015 (the peak of New Zealand's summer), we got married on Waiheke Island, a beautiful little island covered in vineyards, about 30 minutes by boat from Auckland. Our friends and family flew in from around the world, escaping the Northern Hemisphere winter. It was a beautiful week of celebrations!
A few months later, during the Northern Hemisphere summer, we set off for our honeymoon. We had plans for hiking and boating in Coeur d'Alene, a wedding in Orange County, plans for sightseeing in Washington, D.C., tickets for Broadway in NYC, and plans of laying on the sand in San Diego. We couldn't wait to begin our adventure!
We boarded our flight to the U.S. full of excitement and a feeling of adventure, but halfway through the flight, Matt fell ill with a series of fevers. By the time we arrived in Coeur d'Alene about 30 hours later, he was wrecked. He climbed into bed that night and stayed there for 3 days.
We were certain he had the flu or a bad cold and that we'd just have to wait it out, but we decided to go to the doctor to see if maybe some antibiotics would help. We had a lot of traveling ahead of us and we wanted him to recover quickly! So we went to urgent care and waited with the rest of the Monday morning crowd. We were finally admitted to a room where they gave Matt some fluids via IV, and he poked fun at himself for going to the doctor for what was surely just a cold. We sat there reading magazines and waiting for the doctor to return with orders to drink a Gatorade and get some rest.
Instead, the doctor returned less than an hour later looking visibly ashen and upset. We thought something serious must have happened in a room next to ours. He had been so jovial and lighthearted earlier. As he stammered for his words, our confusion grew. He seemed nervous and sad, and we didn't know why. He said something about Matt not having any white blood cells. I was confused, so he broke it down simply: Matt either had a life-threatening disease or blood cancer.
I waited for the next "or", but it didn't come. That doctor could see more of our future than we could that day, and his heart was visibly breaking for us. We were immediately transferred to an isolation unit in the oncology ward and were told that we wouldn't be leaving the hospital anytime soon.
Two days later, Matt was diagnosed with an aggressive form of blood cancer: Acute Myeloid Leukemia. His blood was 90% cancerous. We cried and held each other, and told each other it would be okay. We didn't know if that was true, but we knew we had to believe it.
Matt's health rapidly deteriorated, and we spent the next couple weeks in and out of ICU and the doctors fought to stabilize him. We were then transported by ambulances and a life-flight to a major cancer center in California (UCSD) where we had one last hope of saving his life: a very high-risk procedure known as a bone marrow transplant. If the transplant didn't take, he wouldn't survive, but it was our only hope.
They initiated the transplant and kept him alive while all his blood cells died. We spent the next year of our lives living in hospitals and isolation fighting for his life. We lost everything we owned in the process: our house, our car, our jobs, and all our belongings except the 3 weeks' worth of clothes we packed for our honeymoon.
When we boarded that flight for our honeymoon, we could never have imagined that we'd be leaving it all behind. We would never again see our house, our car, or most of our belongings. I would never return to my desk at work, and Matt would never return to his.
Instead, we'd be borrowing cars, clothes, and pillows, living in a hospital, and hoping we'd make it through the night. I spent my nights sleeping on a cot or the floor next to Matt's hospital bed. I slept in a state of panic and constant awareness. My nights were a series of power naps in between fire drills as Matt's fevers would soar, his oxygen levels would drop, or his heart rate would plummet. In the middle of the night, when we'd finally get a moment of silence, I would sneak out into the hallway to cry where he couldn't hear me.
Then at one point, the financial reality hit me. We had mounting medical bills, we had exhausted our savings, and we had no idea when we'd be able to return to "normal life". In an act of desperation, I started a GoFundMe page. I also drove around to coffee shops putting up posters: "Please help us," they read. I made this blog public (it had initially been a private update for friends and family). Then something incredible happened: I went to sleep one night, and woke up the next morning to hundreds of emails and messages from friends, family, and strangers. Our story had gone viral, and the support came pouring in. Even Matt's favorite rugby player for the All Blacks heard the news and called us to offer his support. We raised $80,000 in just a few days. We cried and hugged each other, and we knew we would make it through.
We eventually left the hospital and moved into "transplant housing". Then eventually we graduated to our own one-bedroom apartment across the street from the hospital. We spent lots of time in between in-patient and out-patient care, but we were making progress! A year later, we were slowly able to return to a "normal life". Of course, "normal" had a whole new meaning in post-transplant life, and we weren't able to stray too far from the hospital, but over the next few years, we would slowly rebuild a beautiful life for ourselves again -- only this time in San Diego.
Life will never be the same for us, but we will never take another moment for granted. We've learned that there's nothing we can't conquer together, and we have a new sense of gratitude and appreciation for every day we're given.
In May 2019, against all odds, we welcomed the most beautiful miracle into our lives with the arrival of Granite James Fontanesi. We may not have had a perfect path to get to where we are today, but the road that brought us here has enriched our lives in ways we could never explain. Each morning we wake up together is a blessing, and every day that we get to enjoy a cup of coffee together, or walk along the beach, and or just breathe in the smell of the outdoors is a priceless gift.
Thank you to all of you who helped us get here. We could never have done it without you, and we will spend the rest of our lives trying to pay forward the incredible generosity we received along the way.
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