Life Can Throw you Lemons

Today is the Anniversary of my Bone Marrow Transplant in 2015 at Vancouver General Hospital.

I want to share a bit of my story with you today and offer hope to anyone going through something difficult at the moment.

The day after my wifes 30th birthday I was diagnosed with Aplastic Anemia and this would change the rest of our life.

Maybe this can help you in your journey of life’s unexpected turns it can take.

Let me tell you the Backstory

My wife and I both grew up in Christian homes with much of our theology, or beliefs about God and following him, as “if I follow his commandments and live life according to his plans for me, everything will come together for my good.” I think for us, we believed that God had a great plan for our lives and that nothing would stand in our way from having a spouse, a family and generally a good life. 

After all, these are all the things we are raised to believe are normal, and likely things that we all strive towards, that it seemed like it wouldn’t be such a difficult thing to happen.

My wife and I got married in 2012 and had a dream wedding with family and friends from all over the place. My wife and I carried the dreams building a life together and then having a family together.

One of the things that my wife actually planned her life around was to train to be a Registered Nurse because she had the idea that as a nurse you can often go on casual so that you can have children, and still make a decent wage for the family. I did not plan this way so I admire my wife’s forethought into this. For myself I had a dream of becoming a pastor which transformed into being a Certified Canadian Counsellor while working towards Psychologist designation.

We went to church each week, we prayed, we led a Bible study called “don’t waste your life” with some friends. We had excitement for life, and future. I was enrolled in a Masters in Counselling program. It really seemed like we had it all together and of course “God would have favor on us and bless us” according to my theology.

Janice and I would go for runs and bike rides throughout our little community in St. Albert, Alberta as we like to remain active together. In 2014 though, I began to notice that I was lagging behind my wife when we ran or biked. I began to workout harder, thinking it was my lack of physical fitness and needed to get in better shape.

That summer we went to San Diego to enjoy a vacation in the sun and check out the beauty of the coast in the US. It was beautiful and I remember taking some pictures together and admiring my tan.

We then visited family in Vancouver BC, and I remember my aunt reported to my wife without my knowledge at first that my tan had actually resembled a bit like jaundice and that I did not look so well.

I had heard this before in previous months, but as a young person, the last thing you want to hear is “you look yellow.” It was then that I decided to go to a doctor and get a checkup, which I didn’t think anything of. I got some routine blood work and then went to my shift at a Group Home in Gibbons.

I remember at about 7:00pm I got a phone call from a doctor and this was the phone call that would change my life forever.

Doctor:“Hi is this Geordy”

Me: Yes

Doctor: “ Im Doctor _______, I am calling because I received your bloodwork and err umm,

are you feeling okay.”

Me: “Yes I am just at work right now.”

Doctor: “Well your blood levels are so low right now, I just want you to know that you could have Leukemia, you need to go to the hospital.”

Me: “Okay” Click—SOB

This was one of those moments where my whole life flashed before my eyes in one instant and I was suffocating in every stage of grief, while trying to make meaning, process, and everything I knew about life, God, values, was kicked in the stomach. I felt naked, bloody, abandoned and broken.

It is really hard to describe, but it is a vivid memory I now have driving home on the highway balling my eyes out with the thought of a critical illness that feels like a life sentence.  The other part of me thinking, “why the hell would you tell me I may have leukemia over the phone?”

I was admitted to hospital the next day and again hearing the questions of “how are you standing right now?” “did you know you were sick.” It was daunting and frightening because I had been doing all the normal things and believing for a normal life before all this hell broke loose.

I remember being in the hospital and talking to my parents, saying “my blood levels will return, I will be out of the hospital within a week.” I believe this was called denial and everything within me thought this was all just a silly mistake.

I had to get a bone marrow sample, which is the most painful thing I think I have ever experienced, because it was a student who was just learning how to do it. I believe the spot where the student bless her heart, went into my marrow felt a bit like a root canal in my hip where you can feel the expose nerves.

I got the sample, and now it was a wait to see what disease I had. Was it Leukemia? This waiting period was the most difficult time. I remember there was an older gentlemen with leukemia in my room and  his wife would visit him. He had already had one kidney removed and seemed like he was in quite a bit of pain. I had a hard time not thinking about the possibility that this could be me.

The results came and it was clear of cancer, phew! However, it was an illness called Aplastic Anemia. This is a one in six million disease. Oh thank God. I had won the lottery. Little did I know it was a horrible disease as well, just less well known.  

For the next year I found my self-reliant on blood transfusions every month for hemoglobin and every week for platelets, because my bone marrow decided to stop producing blood. This while, trying to finish a master’s degree in Counselling Psychology and working full time.

About a year of this and the doctor telling me that it looks like the only chance for me is likely going to be a bone marrow transplant.

Long story short, my wife and I had to pack up our things into our car, leave our home with a dear friend, and head to Vancouver to then get admitted to hospital at Vancouver General.

“It is here that I learned much about my own life and the lives of others.

It is here that I gained a wisdom that I cherish deeply.

It is also here that I experienced pain, trauma, and broken dreams.”  

I needed bone marrow in order to produce blood, and thankfully I received my sisters. I joke that I am trans marrow because I have female bone marrow.

I stayed on the Bone Marrow Transplant and Leukemia unit for about 40 days before Easter and released on Easter Sunday. It was quite ironic to me because 40 days signifies a lot to me as a person of faith. It was my wilderness. My Lent, my transformation.

In this 40 days, I did not have an immune system which meant I needed to be isolated from others. I needed to wash my hands super well, clean my mouth out twice a day with a special cleaner. It meant visitors had to wash their hands and choose not to visit if they had anything.

IT has been about 5 years now and I am in the middle of a pandemic reflecting on how people are grieving this time of isolation with the lens that I have already been through this.

I have been through the grieving of my life, and the fear of dying. The fear of uncertainty and the loss of many things.

I believe the most difficult thing to lose is the loss of understanding from other people. The loss of empathy from others and the understanding that makes you feel known and heard. It is an ambiguous grief when people don’t understand, and they say something that is so invalidating.

A Few of My Own Reflections

1. The Importance of Family and Friends

When you go through a crisis, you tend to throw aside the things in life that really don’t matter. All of a sudden your workplace drama and being watched and micromanaged, doesn’t matter to you as much as tending to family and friends. The people in my life that love me and support me are more important and provide more fulfillment to me, than the things that I accumulate.

2. The Good and the Bad Suffer

It is my understanding that no one is exempt from suffering and that it is not anything that you do in this life that is going to give you bonus points with God or whatever you believe.

Suffering is a part of life and there were limiting beliefs I had about according to the belief system that I had adopted as truth. I think now my life aligns more with what theology tells us about pain and suffering even from other faiths, and also from a psychological standpoint that suffering and pain are a part of life.  Every human has to ask questions about life, death, purpose, meaning, and it can make us better humans to reflect on these.

3. Do not Waste Your Life

One of the reasons why I have taken a different perspective in regards to this pandemic is that of my experience with a critical illness. I did not know how much time I had left on earth, and there was no way I was going to waste it with fear and anxiety. My wife and I went out while I had no immune system to visit beautiful sites around Vancouver. I wore a mask to protect myself from others because I had no immune system.

4. The Word BLESSING carries a whole new Meaning

As an individual who grew up in the church and believed that if I followed all the right steps and had a good relationship with God, I would be #blessed with a life “full of hope and future…Jer 29:11”

The verse that become the poster of many of us youth that made us feel like God had our backs and we would have this blissful life without pain or suffering.

For me and my journey I think I realized that this theology of blessing within the contemporary Christian tradition was not at all different than consumerism and materialism of the North American mainstream culture. This idea that we deserve to be happy and have all the “things” and that is what makes us blessed.

I remember sitting in a church setting after I had gone through the worst pain and suffering in my life and hearing the words sung from the front of the stage “all my life you have been faithful, all my life you have been so so good.” Let me tell it is not what I had in my heart.

From my pondering about blessing and the meaning of it that will help many of us when we go through difficult times, is the blessing of having the presence of God in our life.

IF you are someone who does not believe in God, maybe it is the presence of those who show you love and affection or literally anything that might keep you going as your higher power.

The one thing I can be sure of is that if my value is in things like money, material items, fancy cars, houses, babies, perfect spouses, and whatever constitutes happiness- these things can be taken from us in a second.

One of my favorite quotes is from a guy named Victor Frankl who spoke about having every one of his freedoms taken away and with that he said that the one thing man could not take away from him was the ability to choose his attitude in whatever circumstance he found himself in.

One of the things that I wanted to make sure that I did when I wrote this is to note that there is not necessarily a silver lining to our story because it doesn’t always end up like a sunshine and rainbows blessed experience in the end.

There are many stories that I found were painful to hear when I was going through my journey, because it invalidated my grief journey at times. Sometimes it can be hard to celebrate with others when you are walking in the darkness at the bottom of the valley.

I think it was important to have people walking alongside of me and not waiting for that silver lining story that we all want to hear. It’s more comfortable to hear about the rainbow baby isn’t it?

I think overall, there is a richness that can come through our grief journey as we allow ourselves the space to go through the difficult feelings and process. We have to walk through the feelings and hard.

We have to walk through all of the feelings in order to start integrating the deep lessons, and teachings from lady wisdom we really don’t want to hear at times.

5. The Body Keeps Score/The Body Says No

One of the lessons I learned was that the body is often telling us we need to do something different with the way we are dealing with things mentally or our physical body will start telling us through illness, pain, etc..

Two books that have been helpful in my journey is “The Body Keeps Score” by Bissel Van De Kolk and “The Body Says No” by Gabor Mate.

I remember a lot of my journey, if it was not for the hope I had within my heart I am not sure how my body would have responded to treatment. I remember I was about to be put into ICU because my heart rate (Beats Per Minute) was 39 and I was going septic, but I literally spoke out “No, check it again” to the nurse and for some odd reason my body aligned with my thought and heart rate went up no joke.

I will always remember my journey and the lessons it has brought to me in regards to whole body health and the importance of our thoughts, beliefs and also what we put into our bodies.

Overall, we are minds but we are also bodies. We only have one.  There are a lot of people that seem to think that they are invincible, but one day we are all going to go through our own suffering and pain and be faced with death.

If you have made it this far reading, you are probably wondering, how the hell did you go through blood transfusions, work full time and do a Masters degree? Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy trying to convince my workplace I needed to top up on blood before getting to work so may be a few minutes late.

When I graduated from my Masters In Counselling Psychology the year after my transplant, it was kinda like I had run a marathon with a rusty nail in my foot, when others seemed to have breezed through life with the trivial things I had only longed for. I quickly learned that Comparison was the Thief of Joy and that I needed to walk my own journey and accept the things that have happened to me.

Thanks for reading a snippet of my story.