Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care
Chapel Hill, N.C. – Kathy DeClue loves her youngest brother Don Hammed for many reasons. These days, Don’s selflessness is at the top of her list.
“Don donated the stem cells I received during my transplant,” said Kathy, 57, of Trinity, N.C., in Randolph County. “It was a favor I never thought I’d have to ask for. But I would have done the same for him if he needed me to.”
Kathy needed the stem cell transplant to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a cancer of the blood cells. For some CLL patients, the disease progresses slowly and they may never need treatment. For others, like Kathy, the disease was on fast-forward and required aggressive medical attention.
“From the start, we knew that the CLL was behaving like a high-risk disease and was resistant to just about all the therapies we have,” said James M. Coghill, MD, assistant professor of hematology and oncology at the UNC School of Medicine, a member of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the leader of Kathy’s health care team.
“The stem cell transplant on April 25 was the best option for trying to get her disease under control, and Kathy had the luxury of three siblings who were a perfect match to donate stem cells. She’s had a supportive family every step of the way. I’m sure they would be willing to donate bone marrow again if she needed it.”
Besides Don, 46, of Kernersville, N.C., brother Butch Hammed, 56, and sister Rose Tucker, 60, both of Roanoke, Va., were perfect matches. Having multiple matches is unusual as most patients, at best, have a one-in-four chance of getting a perfect match, Dr. Coghill said.
Don got the nod because he was “young, healthy and had never been pregnant,” Dr. Coghill said. “Generally, we try to go with males as donors because female donors who have been pregnant develop antibodies that can increase the chances of graft vs. host disease or rejection.”
Rose, the mother of three children “jumped, cried and screamed” when she found out she was a perfect match for her sister and her best friend.
“I wanted to be a match and her donor so bad, and I was really disappointed when they went with Don,” Rose said. “They told me I’d have enough to do as her caregiver, and as it turned out, I did.”
Rose, who was laid-off from her child day care job last year, came to Chapel Hill and tended to Kathy’s every need during the preparations for the transplant and the 100 days post-transplant that Kathy was required to stay at SECU Family House.
The 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes away from UNC Hospitals provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers. It’s the ideal residence for patients who may have daily appointments at the hospital or need immediate medical attention.
Long-time family friend and retiree, Raymond Moyer, drove Rose, a self-proclaimed “nervous driver”, the three hours from Roanoke to pick up Kathy then drove them the 70-miles to Chapel Hill. While Rose was taking care of Kathy, Raymond coordinated movie nights for fellow residents and some exercise classes including Zumba.
“The movies, which were spiritual and inspirational, were better received than the exercise,” Raymond recalled. “It was all our way of giving back and helping others.”
“If it wasn’t for Rose and Raymond helping me, I don’t know what I would have done,” said Kathy. “They were right here with me, taking care of whatever I needed done. My husband, Harles, is a retired long-distance truck driver and visited when he could, but he was needed at home where we have three children and three grandchildren.
“We’ve made life-long friends at Family House and at UNC Hospitals,” Kathy continued. “I was treated at other places since I was diagnosed in 2008, but I felt like I had been given up on until I came to UNC. I’ve been treated really kindly here, and I give them credit for saving my life.”
Despite the seriousness of her condition, Kathy has weathered the treatments—prior chemotherapies, the April stem cell transplant, a July booster of more cells and follow-on chemotherapy—with few side effects.
“I lost my hair, but it’s coming back,” Kathy said, running her fingers through her new salt-and-pepper pixie-style. “The worst part of it all was the smell of creamed corn which came from the preservative used with the donated stem cells. I’ve never liked creamed corn and don’t expect I ever will.”
Fatigue, which triggered the initial doctor’s visit and subsequent diagnosis, is still a factor in Kathy’s life and she looks forward to the day she can return to her job as a baker for Harris-Teeter in High Point.
“It’s physically demanding work and I have to be there before daybreak, but it’s a job I love and I miss it,” Kathy said. “And Harris-Teeter has been so good to me. I have been out of work for extended periods four times since my diagnosis. Each time, they’ve held my job, and they are still waiting for me to come back. I won’t go back until I know I can do the job.”
In the meantime, Kathy plans to keep in closer touch with her supportive family, where ever they are.
“I’ve always been close with my siblings, and I think this has all drawn us closer,” Kathy said. “It’s also taught me that I’m a lot stronger person than I ever thought I was. I know God’s had his hand on me, and He’s not done with me yet.”
Multimedia note: A video interview with Kathy DeClue is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRcHrt6-RQ4.
To learn more about how to be tissue typed for the national bone marrow donor registry, go to http://BeTheMatch.org.