Never too old for a Second Chance
(September 2015) Confronting death face-to-face, and granted a reprieve with a second chance at life, changes a man.
Just ask Bill Bourland. Diagnosed with a deadly disease he couldn’t pronounce, the Tucson, Arizona resident was told he couldn’t fight it either. Yet today, thanks to the dogged determination of his wife, an almost-eerie conversation with a neighbor and a doctor willing to use adult stem cell treatment when others wouldn’t, Bill lives a full, happy and healthy life.
“I wake up in the morning saying ‘thank you’ to God,” says Bill. “That attitude of gratitude just stays with me throughout the entire day. The little things aren’t so little any longer, I can tell you that. I look at life much differently It’s been quite a journey.”
The first clues to Bill’s long, death-defying journey began innocently enough—with a change in the routine of his daily nap. “I’m not talking about a 30 minute nap,” recalls Bill’s wife Mary. “He would start laying down in the afternoon and just stay down, for three or four hours or more. Then I noticed he started getting really tired walking from the car to the grocery store, things like that. It wasn’t like Bill because he always had a lot of energy.”
Bill told his doctor about his new fatigue symptoms during an annual physical and a blood test revealed some abnormalities. After more tests, a diagnosis emerged: Myelodysplastic Syndromes, MDS for short. “I didn’t know what the heck he was talking about,” says Bill, who tried resorting to humor when told the news. “I told the hematologist that I shouldn’t be allowed to get anything that I couldn’t spell.”
But MDS is no laughing matter. Sometimes described as “pre-leukemia,” MDS is a dangerous and often fatal disease of the blood, especially among older patients. In layman’s terms, Bill’s bone marrow had stopped making new blood containing healthy red and white cells and platelets.
The Bourlands wanted to know what could be done to treat the condition, and the answers were less than reassuring. “They told us we could continue the blood transfusions,” says Bill, “and I’d already had six transfusions at that point. The next option was chemotherapy treatment once or twice a week, which might not work and the side effects would be very unpleasant. After that, the only other option they offered was what they called palliative care.”
“We knew what that meant,” says Mary. “Our friend had suffered through a terrible cancer and palliative care is just making you comfortable for your final days. What they were saying is there’s nothing we can do for you. You’re going to die.”
The weeks that followed the MDS diagnosis were the darkest Mary and Bill had ever experienced. Mary spent hours researching other options and doctors on the Internet, running into one dead end after another. Bill called a lawyer and began putting their family affairs in order. It was a painful, almost surreal time with no hope.
SERENDIPITY — OR A DIVINE MESSENGER?
Then one day their new neighbor Tom Nunn showed up at the door asking to borrow a garden tool. Although she hardly knew him, Mary poured her heart out in a rush of tears and emotion. To her utter surprise, Tom explained that he was an MDS survivor, thanks to an adult stem cell transplant under the care of a local physician, Dr. Andrew Yeager.
“I went right back into the house and I told Bill, you’re not going to believe this. We’re going to do this!’” recalls Mary. “We’re going to find out what this adult stem cell transplant business is all about.’ ”
After getting a referral, Bill met Dr. Yeager and they discussed what was involved—the possible complications and the chances of success, which the doctor placed at about 30%. Bill figured his age—67 at the time—would work against him. “But Dr. Yeager told me that I was ‘medically youthful.’ That was music to my ears,” says Bill. “We told him, let’s do this.”
PREPARING FOR AN ADULT STEM CELL TRANSPLANT
An adult stem cell transplant for this condition requires the elimination of the “bad” cells in the body using chemotherapy, and replacing them with the “good” or healthy cells from a donor. The first order of business is finding a donor with the right match of blood and tissue type, typically a close relative. Of Bill’s two brothers and two sisters, his brother Bob ended up being the donor.
Once Bob was identified as the donor, preparation began in earnest—days filled with medications and paperwork—and prayer.
“I know it sounds trite, but I could really feel the prayers,” says Bill. “There was discomfort going through the chemo and it wasn’t easy on Bob either, but I just figured God was in control and this is part of the cure.”
Within hours of Bob’s adult stem cell donation, the transplant was made and the healing began. “It was a slow process of recovery,” says Mary. “It was a number of months before Bill really started feeling a lot better. But eventually he did feel better and really, he’s back to his old self.”
Six years after the adult stem cell transplant, Bill Bourland is embracing life like never before, refurbishing antique trucks and volunteering at church. He credits his brother Bob—the donor of the healthy adult stem cells (see link below)—as well as Dr. Yeager and all the prayer support he’s gotten from Mary and others with his recovery.
“Dr. Yeager was everything you’d hope for from a medical professional,” recalls Mary. “He was always very clear about the physical and medical implications. But at the same time he was very encouraging and made it clear that we would walk this path together. Everything was realistic, but positive.”
“I’ve had incredible support every step of the way,” says Bill. “Dr. Yeager has been an incredible resource. I’m so grateful to God and for the science of adult stem cells. Adult stem cells really do save lives. I’m living proof.”
ROLE OF THE ADULT STEM CELL DONOR: BE THE MATCH
Bill Bourland was fortunate to have a healthy brother with the blood and tissue type that would allow him to be a donor of adult stem cells. This is not always the case. To learn more about bone marrow basics and how you can help others, click on this link: