A Rare Diagnosis
Dennis Gittemeier, 61, has always lived an active and healthy life. In 2012, his busy schedule included working with his brothers to run their commercial drywall company in St. Charles, Mo. Dennis’ days were full with client meetings, visiting construction sites and studying blueprints.
In the beginning of the year, a storm blew over the fence in Dennis’ yard. While fixing it, Dennis noticed he was wearing out quickly, which was unusual for him, and found that he was becoming more and more tired. He decided to see his primary care doctor to find out why.
After Dennis described his fatigue, his doctor decided to run a blood test. The next day, Dennis received a call from the doctor, wanting him to come back in. He told Dennis he was anemic, but not from an iron deficiency. Instead, his hemoglobin level, a measure of protein found in red blood cells, was at 8 — an extremely low number compared to a normal hemoglobin level of 15.
His doctor referred Dennis to Amanda Cashen, MD, a Washington University oncologist at Siteman Cancer Center, who specializes in leukemia and blood disorders. Dr. Cashen diagnosed Dennis with myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare bone marrow disorder in which the bone marrow does not produce enough healthy blood cells. When there aren’t enough blood cells, it makes it hard for the body to function properly, often resulting in fatigue, shortness of breath or frequent infections.
“I was shocked by the diagnosis. Before this, I was in perfect health. but I made up my mind early-on that I was going to stay positive and fight this disease,” says Dennis.
Treatment: A Transplant and Trial
To treat a diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome, a stem cell transplant is often necessary. While the search for a donor began, Dennis underwent weekly blood work. Every three weeks, he received a blood transfusion, raising his hemoglobin level to around 9.5 — while an improvement, the level was still very low. Finally, in November, a donor was identified for Dennis. The stem cell transplant was scheduled for January 16, 2013.
On January 8th, Dennis reported to Siteman Cancer Center to begin chemotherapy in preparation for his transplant. The day of the transplant, Dennis, along with his wife, Bonnie, and three daughters, waited for the stem cells to arrive that evening. After a successful transplant, Dennis went home on February 4th.
Following his transplant, Dennis was enrolled in an institutional clinical trial that administered decitabine chemotherapy, a new drug being studied for treatment, for six months post-transplant. He received outpatient treatment for five days every five weeks. While the chemotherapy was tough on Dennis, he was continuing to improve, with his hemoglobin level slowly increasing.
Dennis was eager to participate in clinical trials, providing both blood and bone marrow samples to be studied. “I opted-in for any study they recommended. Even if it couldn’t help me, it might shape patient care for others down the road. If I could help someone else, why not?” says Dennis.
Throughout his treatment at Siteman Cancer Center, Dennis was cared for by a multidisciplinary team of oncologists, specialists and nurses. “Dr. Cashen was absolutely great. She was there for us throughout the entire process. The doctors and nurses on the transplant floor kept me comfortable and made sure I knew what to expect. Even the nutritionist was great,” says Dennis. “The whole team couldn’t have been better.”
Dennis also found support from Bonnie, his wife of 16 years. She accompanied him at all of his doctor’s appointments and was by his side throughout his hospital stay. “She was a great caregiver. You have to have a good support group — mine was my wife,” says Dennis.
Giving Back to Other Patients
Since his transplant, Dennis has remained in full remission. He hasn’t needed another blood transfusion, and his hemoglobin level is around 13. While Dennis still has some fatigue, his energy levels are gradually improving every day. He enjoys spending time with his family, which includes his five grandchildren.
One year after a transplant, contact information can be exchanged if both donor and recipient agree. In Dennis’ case, both he and his donor were interested in meeting. Dennis’ donor, Brian Jakubek, is a St. Louisan, who didn’t live far from Dennis’ home in St. Charles, Mo. It’s rare for donor and recipient to live in the same area. Now, Dennis and Bonnie take Brian and his wife, Kathy, out to dinner each year on the anniversary of the transplant. “You might see a regular guy, but Brian is superman to me. He saved my life,” says Dennis.
Dennis is active with Be the Match, an organization that encourages others to join the bone marrow registry. He was inspired to become active because in October 2012, a bone marrow donor registry drive was hosted for Dennis in hopes of finding him a match. Over 100 people signed up. Two of Dennis’ neighbors, along with his niece, have all been matches and have donated to save a leukemia patient’s life.
Dennis also enjoys helping other leukemia patients. One day each month, he visits the inpatient transplant floor at Siteman Cancer Center, offering support and advice to patients in the midst of their transplant. In three years, Dennis has only missed one month, and only because he had a cold and didn’t want to get anyone sick.
“I think it’s nice to hear from someone who has gone through the same thing. Seeing me healthy gives them some hope and reassurance that it will be okay,” says Dennis. “When I meet new leukemia patients, I tell them, ‘Stay positive and keep your hopes up. It’s going to be tough, but you can’t waste your time and energy being depressed — you’re not going to heal that way. And this is the best place you could possibly be.”
Learn more about the National Marrow Donor Program here.