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Published on January 10, 2017

rich kunkel riding motorcycle

Dealing With It: Watertown Transplant Patient Says Team’s Attitude Lifted His

Rich Kunkel is going to Branson, Mo., for a celebration with friends this year. The Watertown father of four remembers when making a plan like that was impossible.

Kunkel faced multiple myeloma in 2012, but completed a bone-marrow transplant in 2013 at the Avera Cancer Institute. While he still faces health challenges, he credits his family, his care team and the latest in medical science as reasons he’s still making plans.

“There have been good and bad times, but I am not going to quit, or stop living my life,” said Kunkel, 59. “I wake up and say: What can I do today? Then I go from there, doing what I can do with the day I have.”

Considering where he started, Kunkel said that approach has served him well.

“I thank the whole Avera Cancer Institute team for everything, from that first day to now,” he said. “Dr. (Ahmed) Galal and Emily Anderson were great. I owe them. They took me when I was confused and scared. They were able to get me to where I am today.”

Kunkel loves to ride his Harley-Davidson, yet the rewards of the open road did not lift his spirits in 2012. He felt weak, and when he returned from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that summer, his daughter gave him no option.

“She said I looked terrible and that we were going to the emergency room, right now,” he said. “I was admitted in Watertown. The team there did a lot of tests and scans, and I had had some terrible back pain. We came to find out I had broken vertebrae.”

His doctors in Watertown felt the broken bone was telltale sign of multiple myeloma. After a biopsy confirmed the cancer, doctors told Kunkel that his best care options could be as far away as Texas or Minnesota. He then talked to Michael McHale, MD, an Avera hematology specialist with a subspecialty in oncology.

“My two sons and two daughters all live in Watertown, so the talk of going so far to get treatment wasn’t much fun. As we discussed options, we realized the Avera Cancer Institute at the Prairie Center in Sioux Falls was the best choice,” he said. “Dr. McHale told me I would work with Dr. Galal and Emily, but before I met them, I was clueless about what would happen.”

Figuring this unknown bone marrow transplant idea out would take some time, Kunkel said.

“I wasn’t sure if I would really know what they needed to do with me, but Dr. Galal was so patient, easy to understand. He took out a white board and spelled it all out, answering all of our questions,” he said. “He took a lot of the intimidating nature of the transplant away.”

Kunkel had three types of potent chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells in his body. Once doctors found that his “cancer numbers” were low enough, they began to harvest his stem cells, and then transplanted them back into his body in a process called autologous bone marrow transplant.

He stayed close to the hospital while he recovered, and all the while, he kept his focus on what mattered most.

“I have kids and grandkids – they are a lot to live for,” he said. “My workplace (Western Area Power in Watertown) was really supportive through it all. My care team was amazing, too. I just kept that day-by-day approach.”

Kunkel was in the Prairie Center and Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center for a while, but on the two-month transplant anniversary, he returned to Watertown. He even took a ride on his Harley once he got home.

Since he faced some recurrence initially, Kunkel’s oncologist recommended he enter a clinical trial that would use genetic information to fight his cancer. Taking this approach helped to lessen side effects while still fighting the cancer. In February 2016, the FDA approved the same trial Kunkel underwent, so now more cancer patients now can use this leading-edge approach to care.

His fight continues, but his care teams and his fighting spirit have made Christmas plans possible.

“Since the trial has started, my white blood count is better. We’re not at the finish line, but we are getting closer,” Kunkel said. “My care team – both here at home and at the Prairie Center –their positive attitude and compassion are what kept me going.”

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