Dear Keith Alperin,
Thank you for helping save my wife’s life.
I tell our story over and over, trying to grasp it. I am writing because it has been two years since Karen’s initial diagnosis, and I can’t fathom all that has happened.
In the summer of 2008 my 40-year-old wife was the picture of health. She worked as a consultant, exercised almost every day and emphasized good eating habits with our family. But she had this little rash on her ankle and a recurrent sinus infection that just wouldn’t go away. Of course, it didn’t slow her down much, but as she saw several doctors who couldn’t determine what the rash was or why her sinus infection would not respond to antibiotics and why she kept feeling tired, the questions took on a heavier tone. We heard several preliminary diagnosis ideas that didn’t make sense and were eventually ruled out.
Then, the week before Thanksgiving, we met with a Dallas oncologist who explained that a recent biopsy had shown an extremely unusual form of cancer, non-Hodgkin’s T-cell lymphoma. And while we were reeling from her words and the fear of the unknown, this caring doctor got on the phone and arranged for Karen to be seen immediately at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Karen was formally diagnosed with this life-threatening disease on Dec. 2, 2008, and started an intensive treatment regimen unlike any I had ever heard of. She began the first of six inpatient chemotherapy treatments, each consisting of 5 ½ days of continuous intravenous medication. We learned that Karen would require approximately 650 hours of chemotherapy and, eventually, a stem cell/bone marrow transplant.
We did not know anyone who had undergone a stem cell transplant. We learned a lot — fast.
First, Karen needed a donor. Her family members were tested, and, unfortunately, none was a compatible match, including her brother. Siblings have a 25 percent chance of matching. Her brother was so convinced he would be a match that he got tested again to see if there had been a mistake.
Then the international search began. As the donor coordinator at M.D. Anderson searched the National Marrow Donor Program databases daily, Karen’s brother began organizing a drive to find a donor. A match for Karen was found just days before the March 29, 2009 drive, but no one considered canceling it. Clearly we understood the importance of getting more people into the data bank. More than 1,000 people lined up in a Dallas mall, and approximately 850 new potential donors were screened and added to the database. The drive raised thousands of dollars to help fund additional awareness campaigns.
While the donor search took place, Karen was in and out of the hospital, receiving intense chemotherapy, “recovering” at home and then returning for another round. Karen’s hair fell out, and she lost weight as the chemotherapy took its toll. Additionally, she had cancerous lesions in her mouth, which made it difficult for her to eat, and she required large doses of pain medication to tolerate the exposed nerve endings in her mouth.
Our children, Matthew (then 12) and Lauren (then 9) visited Karen while she was in the hospital in Dallas and helped care for her at home while also being good students and continuing their extracurricular activities. At school they spoke to each class about their mother and the bone marrow registry drive and even arranged for the younger kids to make colorful, enthusiastic posters for the donor drive. Matthew and Lauren encouraged their friends’ parents to donate time and money, as well as to get registered for the NMDP.
On April 7, 2009, Karen moved into her aunt’s home in Houston and began her pretransplant testing. Her mother, Harriet Mellow, accompanied her, having agreed to be her 24/7 caretaker throughout her treatment and recovery. Within a week Karen moved into M.D. Anderson and had additional chemo as preconditioning for the transplant.
On the morning of April 30, a week after her 41st birthday and a few hours before she received her transplant, Karen received full-body radiation. Her white blood cell count that day was zero! Her parents and I were with her as we watched the transplant — she received stem cells intravenously to rebuild her immune system that had been medically destroyed by the chemotherapy — which was described by one doctor as very strong rat poison!
I drove back and forth between Dallas, where the kids were, and Houston, where Karen was in the hospital and then recuperating until the end of July. Karen was able to see and talk with Matthew and Lauren via Skype until, in late May, they were allowed to visit her in Houston. Throughout this time, they peppered me with questions. Lauren often posed deep questions late at night when we should have been too tired to have such mature conversations about life, death, sickness and love.
In June, when I thought I had a slight break while the kids were at overnight camp, their entire camp was shut down due to an outbreak of swine flu that also hit Matthew and Lauren. The irony of swine flu striking a kosher, Jewish overnight camp was inescapable for me, and we found a way to laugh as they returned home for a week.
On July 31, 2009, Karen made a triumphant return home to Dallas. Two weeks later Matthew became a bar mitzvah. Karen’s celebration and Matthew’s celebration became our celebration.
During this entire time we gave daily thanks for the anonymous donor who gave Karen another chance at life. Karen and the donor corresponded through letters exchanged through the various donor coordinators who screened them to ensure anonymity on both sides.
In November 2009 Karen received a response to her second letter. As she had before, she scanned and forwarded the letter to our extended family. Within a few hours, our sister-in-law called from Evanston declaring that she was certain she knew the donor. The letter reminded her of a good friend of hers and my brother’s — “the most giving guy in the world.” It sounded too good to be true, and we were more than a little skeptical.
However, within hours it became clear that you, Keith, were the donor whose cells had provided the gift of life to Karen. And that is why I thank you. Karen’s story became your story, and the overlap between your lives became a mind-boggling illustration of how small the world can feel.
You were a senior at Northwestern in May 1996 when you registered as a donor at a University-sponsored bone marrow registry drive. At the time, medical technology had not advanced to the point where transplants like Karen’s were done through stem cells rather than through more invasive bone marrow extraction. But you registered. You weren’t called as a match until 13 years later. By that time you had married a fellow Northwestern grad and had two children of your own. And despite the logistical inconveniences, when you were called, you didn’t hesitate. You agreed, not knowing the specifics of what was involved or whom you were helping. As you tell it, you drove to a donor center and sat comfortably in a bed for four to five hours watching movies on a laptop computer while your stem cells were extracted through a dialysis-like machine. “No big deal.”
When you agreed to be a donor, you did not know that the recipient of your life-saving cells would be a wonderful woman with two tremendous children, a husband who adores her and an expansive network of friends. You did not know that she, like you, would be a Northwestern graduate who married another Northwestern alumnus. She was president of Kappa Delta and graduated in 1991 with two degrees. You did not know that your family’s 2008 holiday card would be perched on my brother’s mantle next to our family’s holiday card. You did not know any of these things and, apparently, you didn’t need to know.
Karen is wonderful now, and thanks to medical science, tremendous physicians, an incredible community of loving family, friends and strangers, her phenomenal attitude and your willingness to be a stem cell donor, she is alive today. Her cancer is in remission, and she is winning the fight against this disease. When I recently saw her dancing with her friends to Don Henley’s song “New York Minute,” the lyrics made me cry as I realized how quickly things got bad and then got better. Karen is living a life full of music, joy, enthusiasm, appreciation and love.
As she continues her recovery, I often think of how to adequately say “thank you.” Thank you for giving us more time together. Thank you for helping Karen be able to play duets with our kids, watch American Idol cuddled up on the couch with them, help Lauren pick out just the right outfit and hug Matthew, who is now bigger than she is! Thank you for giving us more time to take long walks together and to create more memories with each other and our children. Thank you for helping us appreciate the simple things in life, in a way we may not have done before she got sick.
Thank you for saying “yes” when asked to be a donor. Thank you for wanting to be found and for being willing to communicate with us. Thank you for allowing me to meet you and say “thank you” in person. Thank you for getting to know Karen as a person and not just as the recipient of your cells.
Thank you for allowing me to write this letter to you in such a public forum — to tell Karen’s story and your story — and to encourage others to get screened as potential stem cell donors.
As I write this, as I have written other letters about Karen and to Karen, I have a lump in my throat and tears welling in my eyes. When I say “I love you” to Karen, I often do so with tears streaming down my face. Karen is my wonderful wife, and you are now a friend.
With deep appreciation and endless gratitude,
Aric L. Stock
Aric L. Stock (BSM90) is a trial lawyer who lives in Dallas with his wife, Karen Mellow Stock (BSM91, WCAS91), and their two children, Matthew and Lauren. The stem cell donor, Keith Alperin (WCAS96), lives in Chicago with his wife, Elizabeth A. Lippow (WCAS95), and their two children, David and Sella.
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