Bone marrow patient thanks his ‘many lifesavers’
Blood donated by Cape Codders is keeping Stanley Smith alive.For more than two years, the retired school teacher has received nearly 150 transfusions, and he will need six to eight units a month for the rest of his life to treat a rare bone marrow disease.
“I have many lifesavers,” Smith said, including “the scores of Cape Codders I may never know whose generous blood donations are constantly replenishing the supply my bone marrow no longer can generate on its own.”
At 75, Smith was still working part time, traveling across southeast Massachusetts from his Barnstable home every week as a teacher’s union representative. Then, very rapidly, he began to suffer severe fatigue. He was short of breath and sometimes dizzy. “I could barely get out of my car and walk across a parking lot,” he recalled.
He went for a check-up, and his doctor ordered a blood test. The next day, he got a call to immediately come to Cape Cod Hospital. “Go now,” Smith remembers hearing over the phone.
At the hospital, doctors immediately gave Smith his first two pints of red blood cells, the start of a long and arduous medical journey.
Now 78, Smith soon learned that he was one of only about 3,000 people a year in the United States to contract Myelodysplastic Syndrome, or MDS.
It’s the same condition that afflicts Robin Roberts, anchor of ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Primarily a disease of the elderly, it occurs when the bone marrow can’t produce enough healthy blood cells.
Healthy bone marrow produces stem cells, red and white blood cells, and platelets. In MDS, the stem cells may not mature or will have a shortened life span, resulting in fewer than normal mature blood cells in circulation.
MDS patients like Smith can easily contract infections. He has been rushed to Cape Cod Hospital’s emergency department four times with urinary infections, pneumonia and sudden fevers exceeding 104 degrees. Patients can also suffer spontaneous bleeding, bruising and anemia.
Smith remembers his first appointment at the hospital’s oncology department after receiving his diagnosis. He said out loud, “Cancer. I can’t have cancer. I have no pain. I just have shortness of breath.”
In one-third of patients, MDS can lead to leukemia. It need not be directly fatal, and can be cured by bone marrow transplants in some cases. Most likely, when a patient dies, it comes from complications of the disease.
Soon after his diagnosis, Smith began rigorous rounds of chemotherapy. Inevitably, it did not halt the disease. Nor is he a candidate for a bone marrow transplant, so the key to his survival became continuous blood transfusions.
“It’s a never-ending battle to replace the blood cells I am losing to the disease,” he explained recently, while sitting in the living room of his immaculate condominium alongside his wife, Margie.
Life is now organized around routine trips to Wilkens Outpatient Medical Complex in nearby Hyannis, where his blood is drawn for testing at Cape Cod Healthcare’s Laboratory Services. Then, depending on his test results and how he feels, Smith will head to the Davenport Mugar Cancer Center or the IV Therapy department at Cape Cod Hospital three to four times a month for red blood cell infusions.
“It will take about a day, but then, I get my energy back,” he explains. “I’m never going to be able to resume my active lifestyle, but the transfusions restore my quality of life so I can enjoy my kids and grandkids. We have stairs to the bedroom, and I’m able to go up and down.”
The staff at Cape Cod Hospital’s Davenport-Mugar Cancer Center have all developed a close relationship with Smith, said Adrienne Sullivan, RN, manager of Cape Cod Hospital’s Oncology Clinic. “We feel that he is one of our family members,” she said. “He has an amazing positive outlook that I believe fellow patients recognize and find supportive in our clinic.”
Cape Cod and Falmouth hospitals require about 8,000 pints of blood a year. Currently, only about 35 percent of that supply comes from local donations. The rest must be purchased off Cape at a cost of $275 or more per pint.
In the last two years, Cape Cod Healthcare’s Blood Center has hired a blood donor recruiter and purchased—with strong financial support from the Rotary Clubs of Cape Cod and other fundraisers—a four-bed bloodmobile that travels from one end of the Cape to the other.
“Our donations are on the rise, and we envision a day when all the blood we will need for patients like Stanley Smith will come directly from Cape Codders’ blood donations,’ said Constance Patten, director of Cape Cod Healthcare’s Blood Center.
“It’s funny,” he said. “When I taught high school, I volunteered to start and run blood drives with help from the students. Back then, I never thought I would need blood myself. I guess what goes around, comes around.”