SYRACUSE, NY – Doug Reicher was four days away from launching his 1929 historic 46-foot boat in Brewerton when he got a phone call asking him to report to the hospital as soon as possible.
Reicher, 65, had a low white blood cell count, prompting his doctor to order a bone marrow biopsy. He reported to the hospital several hours after he was told to do so, and learned the next day he had acute myeloid leukemia.
“I was like a deer in headlights – I had no idea what was coming,” the Syracuse man said. “I just wanted my life back. “
This week, Reicher – president of the housing non-profit Christopher Community – is getting that life back after his niece from California donated her stem cells to be transplanted into her uncle. Reicher left Upstate University Hospital this week to go home for Christmas – after a total of nearly 14 weeks of in-hospital treatment.
This is Upstate Cancer Center’s second stem cell transplant, and it’s been a success so far, doctors said.
Reicher’s wife, Camille Tisdel, planned a quiet celebration to mark Doug’s homecoming – with a well-done rib eye steak and crisp baked potato for dinner – at Reicher’s request.
“I was exhausted getting home,” he said, “but it was just wonderful to be back in familiar surroundings. I couldn’t even sleep because it was so quiet.
“I’m so grateful to my niece,” he said. “There are few opportunities in life to save someone’s life – and she definitely saved mine.”
With the stem cell transplant, which replaces Doug Reicher’s unhealthy cells with brand-new healthy ones, he can get back to normal life – although his cells and immune system are that of an infant’s. That means his immature cells make him susceptible to infections – and he will require all the immunizations he had as a child once again. That will take place this spring.
“I know I’m just like an infant now, and my cells have to grow and let me become an adult again,” he said.
What that means – along with taking more than 30 pills a day – is being super-careful not to get sick. That means no handshakes or hugs, sitting across the room from people and venturing to the grocery store only late at night with a lot of sanitizer for the grocery cart. Leaving the hospital’s cancer center, Doug Reicher fist-bumped his nurses to save goodbye.
“I haven’t kissed my wife since June,” he lamented.
His 30-year-old niece, Erica Reicher of San Francisco, is thrilled the stem cell transplant was so successful, and her uncle can go home.
Erica Reicher said her uncle’s siblings, nieces and nephews all stepped up for testing to be candidates, and she turned out to be the best half-match. Doug’s children are adopted, so they weren’t considered for a match.
Erica flew in from San Diego for the procedure.
“It was scary for me because of the unknown,” she said, “but I learned it’s not as invasive a procedure as I’d heard. The injections prior to the procedure were pretty painful, but it was worth it to help my uncle.”
Doug Reicher doesn’t know why how he developed AML – a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow characterized by excess immature white blood cells. His doctor hold him not to worry about how he got it – no one really knows – but to focus on beating it.
That’s exactly what Doug Reicher has done. He shared his struggle with the disease on CaringBridge with his wife’s help, figuring that being public about it will help others. CaringBridge is a website that allows people to share their health updates and get support, help from people.
Sharing on the site helped activate a support system for himself and his wife, and was therapeutic for Doug Reicher to talk about what he was going through.
When Camille Tisdel was at the hospital with no time to eat, she reached out to her Caring Bridge site’s 600 followers and received so much food she was overwhelmed.
Doug Reicher, who said he’s never been hospitalized before this, dealt with having a serious illness by taking it one day at a time and not looking at the big picture. He underwent several rounds of chemotherapy this summer before being told he should consider a stem cell – or bone marrow – transplant. That, he was told, could put him in permanent remission.
“It helped to learn what I was going through and my treatment in small doses, so I didn’t get too overwhelmed,” he said. “It was a rough process with some pretty harsh stuff, but we needed to get at those bad cells. I got beat up a bit, but I bounced right back.”
While hospitalized, Doug Reicher had no visitors but his wife. On Nov. 20, Erica Reicher’s stem cell transplant was injected into him. ” I felt a flush and very cold in my chest- and then 20 minutes later i was done.”
It’s not all been smooth sailing. Although Doug Reicher hasn’t developed any illnesses, he’s had some common complications – a fever, a racing heart and bladder problems that kept him awake at night.
“I’ve had some dark moments,” he said. “The worst was having to get up to the bathroom every three minutes. I was absolutely exhausted.”
Dr. Jeffrey Pu, director of stem cell transplant at Upstate University Hospital and Upstate Cancer Center, said Doug Reicher has AML with a poor prognosis – meaning that without a stem cell transplant his risk of recurrence was high. With the haploidentical transplant – from a relative – he is now in long-term remission, Pu said.
Because of the complexity of the procedure and risks, Doug Reicher will need about a year to recover.
“His transplant grafted very well, and he is recovering as expected,” Pu said.
Right now, Camille Tisdel is assembling a network of Dougsitters on Caring Bridge as he can’t be left alone for the first 100 days, and she needs to return to her job at Syracuse University.
Doug Reicher said he’ll be happy to live life without having to isolate himself from others – and to again eat fruits and vegetables he’s had to avoid due to infection risk.
“My first food at home before my steak was a tomato sandwich, and even though I ate it while resting on one elbow, it was so good,” he said.
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