'New life' celebrated Family, friends help Catawissa RD woman get through successful bone marrow transplant
CATAWISSA - Cathy Dressler's birth certificate records she was born June 13, but she will be celebrating a second date from now on.
"May 7, 2012. That was the day my new life began," Dressler said.
Thanks to an experimental procedure, Dressler, of Catawissa RD, received a life-saving bone marrow transplant that has put her on the road to recovery from acute myeloid leukemia.
"I feel great and so blessed to be where I am today," Dressler said at her home on High Road. "Going through all this, you learn that material things don't matter, but health and family and friends are the greatest gifts of all."
Dressler's odyssey began March 8, 2011 when she was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a disease that affects the bone marrow and blood. She was told that she needed a bone marrow transplant.
After testing showed family members weren't a match, she sought the help of the National Marrow Donor Program which helped to organize bone marrow drives in Shamokin and Elysburg. The drives were successful, to a point.
"One person was found to be a perfect match for someone else at each drive, but there was no perfect match for me," Dressler said.
She continued to hope, but her condition worsened. She had six straight months of chemotherapy and was hospitalized at Hershey Medical Center, waiting for a transplant. On one occasion, a match was found, but disappointment, not a transplant, followed.
"We had a donor, but two weeks before the procedure, they dropped off the face of the earth. Because of the anonymity, we never knew who they were or what happened," she said.
After six months of treatment, Dressler reached a stage where doctors told her only a transplant could save her life.
It was then that Dressler and her family heard about a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, where mismatched bone marrow is manipulated to fit a specific patient.
"I had nothing to lose, I called and inquired about the trial," Dressler said.
When she spoke to a doctor about it, she became optimistic about the trial working.
"I was talking to the doctor and he asked me about what my goal is," Dressler said. "I told him that I wanted to hold my first grandchild that was coming in a few months. He looked at me and said. 'No, you want to watch them graduate. We are thinking long term here, not short term.' When I heard that, I knew things would be great."
After a battery of tests, including blood work, CAT scans and a spinal tap, Dressler was approved and told to come to Baltimore for the procedure.
"I called my sister, Fran, and asked her what she was doing and she said nothing. So we drove later that day to Baltimore, where I stayed for the next two months."
On May 7, the marrow was harvested from a donor at another location. The marrow was then flown to Baltimore and transported to Johns Hopkins.
"They brought this package of marrow to me. When I held it, it was a very humbling experience. I looked at it and just knew it had to work, I was holding my life in my hands at that point," Dressler said.
Dressler was the 10th person to undergo the procedure at Johns Hopkins. After 40 are completed, the procedure can be used at other hospitals.
Slowly but surely, the marrow began to work to heal Dressler as she remained in Baltimore, staying in an apartment across the street from the cancer center, as her sister, Fran Kerstetter, and husband, Skip, worked to take care of her.
"My sister stayed with me Sunday through Tuesday, and my husband was with me Wednesday through Saturday. I couldn't thank them enough for their support."
Dressler also received support from friends and family via Facebook.
"It is awe-inspiring to see all these people were reading the updates I posted and telling me they are praying for me, and sending cards and messages of hope," she said.
As she continued to recover, Dressler noticed that certain things about herself were changing.
"My hair was growing back. It was coming back curly, and was never curly before." Dressler said. "I also saw that my blood type had changed from O positive to AB positive."
Dressler also developed a taste for avocados, tomatoes and coffee, none of which she liked before.
"All my marrow is killed and except for my organs, my DNA is gone, too. What I have now is all from the donors," she said.
On Dec. 6, Dressler went back to Baltimore for a bone marrow biopsy to see how she was progressing. After two weeks, she shared the good news on Facebook.
"Week 32 - More good news to help make this a very Merry Christmas," she wrote. "Engraftment results good, no evidence of rejection. Going off anti-rejection meds. Just need to watch for any symptoms of GVHD (graft vs host disease). Hopefully, never back on those meds. Love and hugs!"
She was also back home for the first time in two years to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with her family.
"That was the greatest gift I ever got," she said. "Being with family and friends and feeling so good. This is my new life, and I'm loving it."
For Dressler, May 7, 2013, can't come soon enough. After one year, the privacy restrictions are eased and, if the donor agrees, Dressler can contact that person directly.
"I've received some cards from her, but I don't know the name or where she lives. Based on the handwriting, I'm guessing it's a woman," she said.
As Dressler gets stronger every day, she continues to work with the Be the Match program to encourage people to become donors.
"I also encourage people to contribute to the Leukemia and Lymphona Society. The money raised helps with research for new treatments to help fight these diseases," she says.
For now, Dressler is concentrating on enjoying life.
"I will keep working at my new job, which is to keep getting better and better each day," she said.