AML Survivor Delivers Hope to Transplant Patients

 

In 2002, Ron Bretz, of Lake St. Louis, had his first physical in 29 years. He was always very healthy, so it came as a surprise when he was diagnosed with essential thrombocythemia. A rare blood cancer, essential thrombocythemia causes an increased number of platelets in the blood but often has no symptoms or side effects. For Ron, his only treatment was a daily baby aspirin. However, he was told that it could someday morph into something else.

For the next 11 years, Ron saw his oncologist once a year. At his annual appointment in June 2013, his platelet count had jumped astronomically. This prompted a referral to Meagan Jacoby, MD, PhD, an oncologist at Siteman Cancer Center. A bone marrow biopsy led to a new diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia, or AML

Ron reported to the hospital the following Monday to begin treatment. He spent 69 days in the hospital, undergoing three rounds of chemotherapy in hopes of reaching remission prior to a transplant. During this time, Ron, an IT professional, continued to work.

Ron and his family at Christmas in 2019.

“I was lucky I didn’t have a lot of side effects,” says Ron. “I had an office set up in my room with a recliner, a table I borrowed from the nurses and my laptop with a large monitor. The nurse practitioner would come in early in the morning, saying, ‘I see you’re in the office already?’”

Ron’s wife of 36 years, Donna, stayed with him almost every day and every night throughout his hospitalization. His children and grandchildren visited at least twice a week. Other frequent visitors included his coworkers, relatives and friends. In an effort to keep his extensive support system informed, Ron set up an online journal where he posted daily updates throughout his treatment. 

Transplant Into Remission

Unfortunately, Ron’s leukemia kept coming back, but they decided to proceed with the transplant. He was sent home for a few weeks before returning for a fourth and final round of chemotherapy and received a stem cell transplant on September 19, 2013, from an unrelated donor.

The first few days following transplant were rough. Ron experienced mouth sores, a sore throat and what he describes as the worst stomach cramps he could possibly imagine. But Ron was warned it would get bad before it got better and took comfort in knowing it would only last a few days. 

Soon, Ron began feeling better and his counts returned. He went home 20 days post-transplant, and his first biopsy 10 days later showed no signs of leukemia. He has been in remission ever since.

Now, at 67, Ron still plays racquetball, pickleball and golf with his wife. He’s enjoying retirement, partaking in the plethora of activities available at the 55+ active adult community he and his wife live in and traveling around the country together. They even visited Ron’s donor in Germany, whom he first met at Siteman’s 2018 Blood and Marrow Transplant Patient Celebration.

A Trained Volunteer Courier
Ron with his stem cell donor from Germany.

Since his retirement, Ron has been actively involved with Be the Match®. He first helped at registration drives, encouraging people to join the registry. There, Ron learned of the volunteer courier program. Volunteer couriers are individuals who retrieve life-saving stem cells or bone marrow from a donor and deliver them to an anxiously awaiting patient. There are more than 300 trained volunteer couriers in the U.S. alone. Ron’s first courier trip was in December 2015, and he just completed his 57th.

“When I applied to be a volunteer courier, they asked me why I wanted to do this, and my response was, ‘Why wouldn’t I want to do this?’ Because of my own experience, I know exactly what I am doing this for,” says Ron. “It’s a really good feeling.”

Beyond his work as a courier, Ron and his wife also volunteer at Siteman twice a month, visiting with patients undergoing treatment. While there, he often offers words of encouragement to patients and their families. “I always try to convey my belief of just how great Siteman is — it’s one of the top cancer centers in the country, and I trust them implicitly,” says Ron. “Also, my biggest thing is to keep a positive attitude. Everything isn’t going to go great every day. You’re going to have good days and bad days, but I believe 100% that your belief and willingness to get better has an effect — it did for me.” 

Read other patient stories here.