By Maria Pearson
As a technology teacher who had a long career with IBM before going into education, I have encountered all sorts of opportunities to teach – and to learn. The biggest such opportunity of my life occurred at the intersection of cancer, technology, and Dana-Farber.
In August 2010, I was diagnosed with stage III multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. No search engine was adequate in comforting my fears of life expectancy, treatment, or facing a stark life-altering challenge.
My journey brought me to Dr. Paul Richardson at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, from whom I learned about new bio-technologies and treatments developed within the prior five years. I needed a stem cell transplant; without healthy stem cells, my body could not make the blood and other components needed for my immune system to function.
My own stem cells were taken out and harvested with a system developed by none other than IBM. Healthy stem cells were then put back into my body intravenously. I progressed through my treatment and the finely orchestrated stem cell transplant under the care of Dr. Richardson and his staff, and after three weeks in the hospital, I returned home to a new set of challenges.
Here are some of the tips I learned about how to recover from a transplant:
- Read the Post-Transplant manual and have your friends and family members do the same. There is no substitute for staying informed, and this manual provides the best roadmap. Get help readying your home. Having a disinfected, clutter-free home when you return from a transplant is very important to the health of your immune system. Let friends and family know how they can help with dusting, organizing, laundry, vacuuming, etc. Enjoy the break from housework!
- Stay in touch – even while in isolation. Infection is a major concern for stem cell transplant patients. During the hospital stay and for two weeks afterwards, everyone around me had to wear masks and gloves. My immune system was just beginning to build; I was like a newborn. So I limited face-to-face visits to family and close friends who were not sick, and video chatted with others remotely through FaceTime and Skype. After two weeks at home, I had a few more visitors but still kept a very light social schedule. My first big outing with the public was after 30 days.
- Recognize your limitations. My energy level was weak to moderate in the first few weeks, due in part to my inactivity in the hospital. I took naps in the afternoon before my three young kids came home from school. This would give me a recharge for the late afternoon/early evening rush. My wonderful husband, Tim, would take over when he arrived after work, and I could just be the supervisor of the crew!
- Work within the limits of isolation. I did not leave the house for 30 days, but I did go outside for fresh air. Spring was just around the corner, so I enjoyed looking at what was coming up from the ground in my perennial gardens. I was not allowed to dig or touch the soil because of infection concerns, so my daughter, Hannah, and younger son, Andrew, were my gardeners — I directed from a distance. My first public outing was to my son Noah’s baseball game. I felt it was safe; since I would be in open-air, there would be less exposure to traveling germs. The 100-day milestone really made a difference for me in feeling stronger and freer to explore without being threatened by germs. By summertime, and day 100, I was shopping the outlets for summer clothes.
- Build up your strength. I love to hike in the mountains, but between days 1-100 I had to build up my muscles and joints. I started with going back and forth to the mailbox the first few days, and then gently extending the distance and time outside — building my stamina and strength to handle the rocks and hills on our property. As soon as I was cleared, I climbed Mount Major in New Hampshire!
- If you have kids, adapt to stay safe. I could be around my kids as much as I liked as long as they were not sick, and they were great about wearing masks and gloves during the first few weeks. My mother, Abuela (grandmother in Spanish), was a wonderful help during the first few weeks, and Tim, the love of my life, was always supportive and encouraging when I needed it the most. But the kids wanted my time when they were home.So when they jumped off the bus, immediate hand-washing and clothes-changing was a requirement — and then it was hugs and kisses for ALL. Boy, did we go through paper towels, antibacterial soap, and hand sanitizes, practices we still keep in place. I would go outside and pitch the ball for batting practice, kick the soccer ball back from the goals, and held the bike while my youngest learned to bike without training wheels. I tried to do everything I could with them, because this stem cell transplant was giving me another chance of a healthy long life with my family.
- Eat with gusto…and intelligence. Food wasn’t a priority any more, but the right kind of food was! Maintaining a low bacteria diet is important until the immune function is back to normal. I had to wait 30 days to have raw fruits and vegetables; before that, they had to be cooked or processed (canned). Once the restrictions were over, I could not get enough fresh fruits and veggies. I transitioned my diet to about one-half vegan and one-half my regular diet (I love my ice cream!), resulting in a weight loss back to my marriage weight of 22 years before.
My own lessons were not unlike others who have gone through such a life changing transformation, and these lessons have served me not just during my re-birth (YAY! — new stem cells!!!), but for my new life.
Each day now I take time to pray, to love and be loved, and to find the beauty in the most chaotic and charming moments that three small children present. I’ve learned how to balance my life, live with a disease for which there is no cure, and be a better person in the process. I am energetic and feeling very well, fully active working full-time and playing as often as possible.
No matter what tomorrow brings, I’m thankful for each and every day.
Maria Pearson, 51, is a technology teacher for the Winnisquam Regional School District in Tilton, New Hampshire. Diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in August 2010, she had a stem cell transplant in March 2011 and is currently on post-transplant maintenance bio-therapy at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.