Chris Lihosit was saved by umbilical cord blood from three babies used to treat Leukemia
Cord blood banking is still the exception rather than the norm
In early August 2015, Chris Lihosit fell ill with an exhausting, dehydrating and pyjama-soaking fever that mysteriously disappeared two days later.
During a check-up, on his 43rd birthday, his doctor named summertime flu the most likely culprit.
Then the same thing happened again, and it settled into a disturbing pattern: midweek chills and an escalating fever that would break on Sunday. By Monday, Chris would feel fine, only to have the sequence repeat itself.
He joked about it with colleagues at T-Mobile, where he works in software development, “Well, I hope it’s not cancer!”
On alternating weekends from May to October, Chris would volunteer as a back country ranger for the US Forest Service – a physically demanding role that involves patrolling Washington’s Cascade Mountain forests and hiking along high-altitude trails with a backpack that can weigh up to 32 kilograms.
But now, even at sea level, he was getting winded just walking his two dogs around the block. What was going on?
A medical appointment revealed a heart murmur and suspicions of endocarditis, an infection of the heart’s inner lining. The scare triggered another series of tests that led Chris and his husband, Bill Sechter, to Emergency Room 4 at the University of Washington Medical Center.
A whiteboard checklist documented his Saturday morning: insertion of a large-bore IV as a potential conduit for antibiotics, a round of blood draws, and discussions with the ER doctor.
Then the phone rang and the nurse answered, listened and responded to multiple questions in quick succession: “Yes. Yes. Oh, OK. OK. Yeah.” He excused himself from the room and soon returned in a “full hazmat suit”, as Chris describes it. Yellow.
“And that’s when we were like, ‘Oh s***, it’s on. Something is seriously bad.’”
Chris learned that his level of infection-fighting neutrophil cells, normally churned out by the bone marrow, had fallen so low that his defenses were in tatters. He was also severely anemic, with roughly half the normal amount of red blood cells in his blood.
It wasn’t endocarditis. And when one of his doctors performed a blood smear, she saw something on the microscope slide that shouldn’t be there: blasts.
These leukemic cells, stuck in adolescence, were the harbingers of the coming horde that had so astonished 19th-century surgeons.
The doctor apologetically broke the news and Chris and his sister dissolved into tears. In an emotional Facebook post later that day, he attached a picture of himself in a hospital gown and pink face mask and wrote: “this avowed agnostic could actually go for your good juju / positive thoughts or even your (gasp) prayers.”
More tests, including a bone marrow biopsy of his pelvic bone, painted an increasingly disturbing picture. He had acute myeloid leukaemia, a fast-progressing cancer.
The biopsy suggested that an astonishing 80 per cent of his bone marrow cells were cancerous. Strike one.
Other results suggested that chemotherapy wouldn’t be as effective on his form of leukemia. Strike two.
And genetic tests put him in the unfavorable risk category by revealing that his cancer cells carried only one copy of chromosome 21, a rare anomaly associated with “dismal” outcomes, according to recent studies. Strike three.
Chris needed to start chemotherapy immediately.
But first, he had his sperm banked. Then, with family and a close friend at his side, he celebrated his impending treatment with prime rib and cheap champagne smuggled into his hospital room.
Over three days, he received multiple doses of the anticancer drugs cladribine, cytarabine and mitoxantrone, the last a dark blue concoction often dubbed “Blue Thunder.” The drug turned his urine a shade he describes as “Seahawks green” in honor of Seattle’s football team. Other patients have had the whites of their eyes temporarily turn blue.
On the third night of his drug infusion, a sudden back pain grew into an intense pressure in his chest that felt like he was being stabbed. A heart attack? An emergency CAT scan instead revealed two newly formed blood clots: one in his right leg and another in his right lung – not uncommon consequences of chemotherapy.
Over the next six months, Chris would need transfusions of blood-clotting platelets whenever his level of them dipped too low, and daily injections of a blood-thinning drug whenever it rose too high.
Thirteen days after being admitted into the hospital, he posted a more hopeful Facebook entry: “And I’m finally going home! Now the real adventure begins.”
Based on his leukemia classification, Chris was braced for multiple rounds of chemotherapy. He and his husband were overjoyed when a second bone marrow biopsy suggested that the leukemia had become undetectable after only a single round.
Because of his high-risk classification, however, Chris’s doctors said that the cancer was likely to return without a bone marrow transplant.