Thriving at College After Aplastic Anemia and a Stem Cell Transplant

The orange bracelet adorned Jen D’Auteuil’s wrist for years, serving as a daily reminder of the long road her son Drew has traveled since his diagnosis of aplastic anemia at age 10. Made by a family friend, it identified Jen as a member of “Drew’s Army”—and she never imagined taking it off.

Then, before attending a new student orientation with Drew at Pace University last summer, Jen found herself doing just that. Drew would soon be heading off for his freshman year, and she wanted him doing it on his terms. Eventually, if he wanted, he could let his classmates know about his countless blood and platelet transfusions, stem cell transplant, life-threatening pulmonary complications, and the years he spent quarantined by a weakened immune system at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

“Drew went through so much growing up, it was like he was 10 years more mature than the typical freshman,” says Jen. “If I worried at all, it was that he’d be so serious a student that he wouldn’t find time to enjoy himself.”

In the end, Drew managed to do both. Along with achieving a near-perfect 3.9 grade-point average during the 2017-18 academic year, he fell in love with photography and spent many hours “getting lost” with his camera in the streets around Pace’s campus. The school’s New York City locale—a five-hour drive from his family’s New Hampshire home—offered freedom after years of health-related confinement. It was refreshing and cathartic.

“When I was sick, I was so weak that everything had to be done for me,” says Drew. “So, as I got older, and stronger, I did as much as I could for myself. Going away to school was a chance to be truly independent for the first time.” 

Drew with his mother, Jen, in New York City.
Drew with his mother, Jen, in New York City.

Drew’s Diagnosis and Treatment

In June 2009, Drew was an active 9-year-old always trying to keep up with his twin older brothers when he developed what his parents Jen and Peter initially thought was a cold. When he didn’t get better they took him to the doctor, and tests determined he had aplastic anemia—a rare disorder characterized by failure of the bone marrow to produce healthy blood cells: white blood cells to fight infection, red blood cells to carry oxygen to organs, and platelets to help with blood clotting.

Drew’s new condition required several weekly blood and platelet transfusions, a trial of immunosuppressive therapy, and many more nights spent at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s than at home. Doctors determined that a stem cell transplant was needed to replace his failing bone marrow, and he went through the procedure on Nov. 18, 2009 – 10 days after his 11th birthday.

The transplant cured his aplastic anemia, but Drew experienced numerous after-effects including graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), kidney insufficiency and respiratory failure secondary to an acute inflammatory process of the lungs known as idiopathic pneumonitis syndrome, which also damaged his kidneys. Once an energetic child, he now spent months consistently tired. Regaining his physical strength would be an integral part of his recovery; always athletic, he played volleyball, skied, and rowed crew in high school.

Drew with his Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s oncologist, Alison O’Neill, MD, in 2009 and 2017.
Drew with his Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s oncologist, Alison O’Neill, MD, in 2009 and 2017.

He kept up the good work during his freshman year at college: When he wasn’t in class at Pace, or hitting the books with a study group, he often hit the gym. The typical diversions that tempt freshmen, like partying and eating poorly, were not a problem; he had no interest in harming the body that he, his family, and caregivers worked so hard to build back up.

Moving Forward

After the years of constant monitoring, Drew can now go 12 months between check-ups with his pediatric hematologist/oncologist, Allison O’Neill, MD, and his care team at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s—which he says has been liberating. Still, he makes sure to do the little things—like drinking lots of water to help his weakened kidneys and staying sun-safe. Special attention to skin care has become a part of his daily regimen, given that he is already fair-skinned and his skin is more sensitive since his diagnosis of GVHD.

“While I miss seeing Drew and his family with the frequency I did in the past,” says O’Neill, “I relish in the notion that Drew is now an unbelievably independent, health-conscious, and intelligent young man who takes little for granted.”

Drew and his twin older brothers.
Drew and his twin older brothers.

Since 2009, Drew’s family has celebrated his “second birthday” on the Nov. 18 anniversary of his transplant. And as he looks ahead to his sophomore year of college, he remains laser-focused on his ultimate academic goal: medical school.

Drew has seen plenty of childhood cancer from the patient side. Now he wants to see it from the other side—as a pediatric oncologist.

“I’m eternally grateful to the team who treated me,” he says. “That is why I want to pay it forward to others, and give them the same chance I was given to pursue their lives to the fullest.”

1 thought on “Thriving at College After Aplastic Anemia and a Stem Cell Transplant”

  1. Oh my… Drew can’t be in college!!!!! I remember the week he was diagnosed… I credit him with turning my daughter onto the Warrior book series… so pleased to see him growing and thriving… Jen, you are and your family are an inspiration and why we do what we do everyday!

Comments are closed.