Battles, Blessings: Steve Simpson Fights On
Steve Simpson’s smile hides the fact he’s a formidable fighter. He’s at Month 20 in a tough battle beset with obstacles that might have stopped most folks.
After a diagnosis of multiple myeloma in November 2015, he was treated at Avera Medical Campus, where he underwent a complex neurosurgical procedure, six months of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.
While it hasn’t been easy, he’s closer to getting back to the “new normal” that he has learned during this journey is to be expected. It all started with troubling symptoms like numbness in his midsection and legs that spread throughout his body. He lost his balance had experienced unexplained falls.
“I went from normal to waking up Aug. 1, 2015, unable to get out of bed,” said Simpson, now, 54. “X-rays showed nothing, and for two months, before the MRI, I just dealt with excruciating pain.”
Simpson was had always been healthy, so the pain, falls and numbness all confounded him. Multiple myeloma is a form of blood cancer. An MRI in November 2015 showed that Simpson had a mass between his spine and vertebrae. He also had bone fractures – a hallmark symptom of multiple myeloma.
“Six of my vertebrae were destroyed,” he said, and so to address that, he underwent a five-hour surgery that included rods, pins, screws and cadaver bone fusion.
Recovering From First Phase
Recovering from this operation was the first – and Simpson said the most difficult – part of his journey.
“It was very difficult because my left side was paralyzed every time I tried to stand. The nerve and muscle damage had to heal on its own,” he said. “It was almost impossible to stand up and then try to move with the aid of a walker. It was then that I realized just how much I needed help. Without the help of my family, including my wife, Jamie, my parents, my sister and her husband, and my oldest son, this would have never been possible.”
He had to be of two minds while recovering. One mindset was dealing with the screws sutures and the 22 staples in his back and the physical and occupational therapy process. The other mindset was attacking the cancer itself, head on.
When he met with Kelly McCaul, MD, he realized he had the right doctor to help him fight back against his underlying illness. McCaul’s plan was aggressive chemotherapy for six months, and then the bone marrow transplant.
“Kelly and (Kristen) Hurley (CNP), worked together with my family and me, and they were great. They laid out the whole plan for the preparation and the transplant itself,” said Simpson. “I just wanted to know when I needed to be where – and that’s what I got.”
Fighting the Cancer
In order to fight the cancer in his blood, Simpson would have an autologous bone marrow transplant in which his own stem cells would be harvested and reintroduced after a protocol of chemotherapy. That’s where he came to recognize other blessings.
“I was ready to fight and I put on day-to-day blinders,” he said. “I let others worry. I was blessed because I didn’t have some of the bad side effects that some people get. I eventually got into a good rhythm and fought through the process. But then we had a setback.”
Patients facing cancer and chemotherapy – especially while recovering from a substantial surgery – can face other issues. In March 2016, Simpson experienced syncope, a temporary loss of consciousness, because his heart’s left ventricle was damaged. That side of his heart was only able to pump at about half its normal rate.
His medical team quickly moved to address the issue with medication. The chemotherapy stopped and since the transplant date was only a month away, they moved forward with the harvest of his stem cells.
The reinfusion of the stem cells – the transplant itself – was no longer than 15 minutes with an IV. Simpson was surprised.
“That was it? Was my reaction, and three hours later, I went home,” Simpson said. “I was blessed. I had no reactions to the transplant, and Kelly (Dr. McCaul) knew I had the 24-hour support I needed at home, where he knew I would be more comfortable.”
Point blank, everyone at Avera – from the doctors and nurses to the advocates and other staff – they always were there for me and helped me with so many things. The whole time, they treated me as me, and with respect,” said Simpson. “All the way around the horn – this is world-class care.”
Now that his immune system has rebuilt itself, his follow-up exams look good.
“I’m on a journey, and some days the fatigue will surprise me, but I deal with it,” he said. “I’ve been learning all the time, and sometimes you have to learn to listen to your body – busy days can wear me out.”
Read more about the challenges Simpson overcame during his medical journey, and the help now he is providing via social media to others who face cancer, in the second part of his story.