Teenage son helps his father fight leukemia by being his bone marrow donor

A lasting gift

When a Silver Spring dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia, his teenage son was his best hope for survival

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Paul, a singer-songwriter, with his wife, Julie, and son Stew. Photo by Michael Ventura

Paul Tewksbury was in solid shape. He’d often walk the mile and a half from the family’s Rosemary Hills home to the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit Center in Silver Spring, where he caught the Metro to his office in downtown D.C. At night, he’d return home from the station on foot, and he usually found time to squeeze in 30 minutes of cardio at the gym.

But in July 2017 he began feeling unusually tired. Twenty minutes on the treadmill or stair-climber wore him out. He lost about 15 pounds and started taking naps after work.

“One day I recall calling Julie and saying, ‘I just can’t walk home today,’ ” he says.

At night, he’d sweat so profusely that it woke him up. It was as if someone had sprayed a hose onto the bed. “You know how guys tend to do it: ignore and deny until you can’t do that anymore,” he says. “But I just had a sense that something was off.”

Two or three weeks after his symptoms emerged, Paul went to his primary care physician, who ordered a battery of tests. The CT scans of his head, chest and vital organs came back negative, but his platelet count was disturbingly low, so he was referred to a hematologist. On Aug. 14, that doctor ran blood tests and told Paul he needed a second round of lab work a few days later. His theory was that Paul was suffering from some sort of virus. Paul was scheduled to return to the hematologist on Aug. 17. As he was leaving his office early that Thursday to get to the appointment, his phone rang.

I’m sorry to tell you this, the doctor said, but it’s cancer.

“He emphasized that it’s curable,” Paul recalls, “but I was pretty freaked out and scared.”

Julie was also shocked when she learned of Paul’s condition, but she was determined to downplay it to her sons, the same strategy she’d taken several years earlier when she had surgery for thyroid cancer. (She’s fine now.)

“I just remember that I asked if he was going to be OK,” Stew says. “She said it was treatable.”

When Paul got home that night, the family huddled in the hallway near the front door. “He was really pale,” Stew says. “He walked in and it was like a big group hug.”

Later that night, instead of packing for a beach vacation the family was supposed to leave for the next day, Paul checked into Johns Hopkins
Hospital in Baltimore to begin a 30-day inpatient program of induction chemotherapy to treat acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), an aggressive cancer of the white blood cells.

“[AML] has several consequences,” says one of Paul’s physicians, Dr. Jonathan Webster, an assistant professor of oncology at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins. “When the white blood cells don’t function properly, you get infections. Because the white blood cells are growing out of control, it actually squeezes out production of other things that the bone marrow does, so as a result you don’t make red blood cells and you don’t make platelets. When you don’t make red blood cells, you become anemic to the point that you need blood transfusions. If you become too anemic, you can die.”

Without treatment, AML can prove fatal in a matter of days or months. The five-year survival rate is about 40%, according to Webster. However, once someone reaches five years without leukemia, they very rarely relapse, he says.

Following a painful bone marrow biopsy that Paul describes as “torture beyond your wildest imagination, but mercifully short,” doctors implanted a port in one of his veins and delivered chemotherapy drugs (primarily cytarabine and idarubicin) intravenously. He also was given a host of antibiotics, anti-fungals, anti-virals and anti-nauseas. “You had to go to the bathroom a lot, you didn’t want to eat a lot, you didn’t want to get up a lot,” he says. “You started seeing strange rashes form on your body. You kind of get your butt kicked.”

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