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Published on November 17, 2016

Katie Martindale and family

Bone Marrow Transplant Offers Chance for “Normal Life” After Leukemia

A nurse and young mom with two young children, Katie Martindale of Sioux Falls led a busy life that could lead to fatigue. Yet she had the medical background to know that some unusual symptoms weren’t normal – especially a troubling rash on her legs.

For nearly six months, Martindale had experienced pain in her face and upper jaw and initially saw a dentist about it before going to the doctor. After numerous X-rays and tests showed nothing, a blood platelet count showed she had a dangerously low count of 7,000, compared to normal range of 150,000 to 450,000.

Immediately, she was referred to Avera Medical Group hematologist and bone marrow transplant specialist, Kelly McCaul, MD, who diagnosed her with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) on May 26, 2015. The next morning, she started chemotherapy.

“Being a nurse was both a blessing and a curse. I knew how close to death I was,” Martindale said. One round of chemotherapy put her into remission, and she had three following rounds to complete her treatment.

Martindale did well until nearly a year later, when she relapsed in March of 2016. The possibility of bone marrow transplant was already in the back of her mind, and her brother had already been identified as a good match. “Chances of survival are higher with a sibling donor,” Martindale said. Her brother donated his stem cells through a process called apheresis, which is similar to giving blood.

On May 24, 2016, almost a year to the day of her initial diagnosis, she had her transplant. While it was a special time with almost 15 people in the room, after a 10-minute infusion, it was over and seemed a bit anticlimactic after all the tests and preparation.

Yet as her brother’s stem cells began to take hold and form new blood cells, they began to save her life.

Immediately after a bone marrow transplant, there are days of waiting for the infused cells to begin doing their work. Martindale compared it to the movie Apollo 13 and the anxious minutes of silence while the ground crew in Houston waited to hear from the astronauts after re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. “My brother cheered on his stem cells and was very interested in my counts.”

Martindale’s counts, in fact, were pretty amazing. “For most people, it takes 20 days or so to bring their counts up. My counts started going up at day 11.”

As she recovered, she took it one day at a time. “I would always day-dream about that day when they would say, ‘You’re done. You no longer have cancer.’”

So Martindale recently asked her doctor when she would be considered cured. “He said now. That relief was so refreshing.”

Having the option of a bone marrow transplant in her home community meant the world to Martindale, who didn’t have to leave her young family to go seek treatment hundreds of miles away. Because she was a nurse and did so well in her recovery, she was allowed to spend more time at home, rather than in the hospital.

Dr. McCaul; Kristen Hurley, CNP; and the entire team began to feel like family, Martindale said. “You learn you’re not just a number to them. They all know my kids’ names, my birthday… they just know my life. I don’t think my care would have been this personalized somewhere else.” She also credits her husband, Mark, her parents, family and friends as well as her brother who donated his stem cells.

Realizing that her transplant had worked turned her thinking around. “I no longer thought I was going to die.” It felt good to continue on with “normal life” – being a stay-at-home mom for her 3-year-old while considering a return to the workforce. “I’m trying to figure out who I am and what I’m going to do next. I hope that I become stronger, better and happier after all this. I feel like everything happens for a reason.”

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