Matt was diagnosed with AML in September 2012. He is married and at the time of diagnosis his children were 10, 8 and 4 years old. Along the way his treatment consisted of three rounds of chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, 11 weeks in the hospital, complications with his immune system's reactions to the stem cell transplant, some rough infections when his immune system was down, including one that resulted in a perforated eyeball and a partial cornea transplant. 2 years after Matt's diagnosis, he was able to return to work. Today, Matt is able do everything he did prior to his cancer diagnosis both at work and out of work – including exercising almost every day and working shifts at any time of the day, even overnight. He takes no medications.
Matt is an Emergency Physician. He had his care at the same hospital he's been working at since 2001. "As a physician it was nice not to be intimidated by trying to understand the data, information, and complicated scenarios. There are so many stressors that it was really nice not be stressed by lack of comprehension of information. Of course there were times where it would have been nice to not have some of the knowledge I had when the outcomes were not looking favorable, but overall my background certainly was an asset. It also helped me advocate for myself when dealing with other medical scenarios that came up, and with medical and disability insurance companies. Working in the hospital for all those years you come across a lot of familiar faces, from clerical staff, to housekeepers, patient transporters, residents and consultants I may have worked with in the ED, radiology technicians, and so forth. But I was not secretive about my illness and everyday these familiar faces I would pass by when I was an inpatient had kind words for me that probably meant very little to them but were uplifting to me."
Throughout everything Matt found a few positives in having a life threatening disease. 'I was exposed to a tremendous amount of human kindness. The ones that meant the most to me were the things done to help my family when I could not. Our community helped bring meals and transport my kids to their activities so they could maintain as much of a “normal” life as possible. Some friends and relatives even did grocery shopping for us, cleaned out our shed and gutters, and decorated our house for holidays when I was gone. People that I had not seen in years spent time with me, and I know that everyone’s time is valuable, so that meant a lot. There are a lot of things people can give, but none is more valuable than their time. And those who could not help out in those ways but still wanted to, gave to our philanthropy, the LLS. I was truly touched by all these actions and remain so to this day. There are many people that I previously considered acquaintances that I now consider friends."
Matt laid out the many things needed to make it through a tough challenge like acute leukemia:
1. Support, as I just mentioned.
2. Access to resources. My medical bills exceeded $1M. Luckily I had good insurance so I paid very little of that. I have special contact lenses that I wear not for vision, but to manage symptoms from a complication of my immune system reactions to my stem cell transplant. Those cost $13K, not me, but BCBS. Make sure you have these resources in place. Insurance is not there so you never have to pay a penny, it is there so that a disaster doesn’t ruin you.
3. Luck. Everyone with these illnesses needs things to go their way at a few critical junctures. Like responding to chemotherapy and getting into remission. Not getting a devastating infection when your immune system is too weak to fight back. Not succumbing to the infections that almost inevitably occur. Finding a match when a stem cell transplant is needed. Hoping your transplant takes. Coming through the complications with your faculties still intact. You need some luck at those times.
4. Reserve. A life changing illness can happen to anyone at any time, like it did to me. I was the person that never got sick. Until I did. Now I guess I just get sick every forty years, but when I get sick I really do it right! Anyway, life threatening disease processes and their treatments and complications are taxing on the body. You dig deep into your physiologic reserves as you lose weight, muscle, stamina, heart cells, kidney cells, nerve cells, and so on. So you better have some reserve to begin with. So if you are not in shape, get in shape. It may save your life someday. I truly believe one of the reasons I made it through intact was because I was fit and had reserve. But when you get sick, you can’t build up reserve. You need to have it before. So get in shape. I walked miles a day around the hospital ward I was confined to for 11 weeks. I rode an exercise bike in the hospital hallway wearing a mandatory infection control gown that was like wearing a hefty bag, sweating profusely, anemic and not feeling well. So what is your excuse?
5. Great medical care. Perhaps I am stating the obvious. Without the right chemotherapy I would not have been able to get into remission to be eligible for a stem cell transplant to cure me. And there were no stem cell transplants 20 years ago. If you had AML then you got chemotherapy and most of the time the cancer would recur and you would die. But not now. And that is because people dedicated their careers to discovering better medications and developing stem cell transplants. This work needs funding. It comes at a tremendous financial price. But it saves lives, it saves families. Which is where the LLS comes in.
When asked about how we got involved with Light The Night, Matt responded, " I was a couple weeks into my initial hospitalization, my wife saw an ad on TV advertising Light The Night. She immediately registered. We figured it would be a great way to give back and to introduce our children to philanthropy. I told my inpatient doctor, who replied that LLS was actually funding her research! I knew then that we picked the right philanthropy!"
When asked to be a hero Matt had the perfecet response, "I’m just a guy who got sick, a human with a human reaction to a tough situation. And because I survived I am in no way better than those who did not, I just got the breaks I needed at the critical moments. The real heroes are those who have spent careers advancing the care for these diseases. And those who have given their time and resources philanthropically to support these efforts, because they don’t come cheaply. Those are the heroes and I am a beneficiary of the heroic work of others. I am the end result of the coordination of remarkable achievements, a representation of extraordinary efforts, and an example of how the combination of incredibly talented academic minds and generous philanthropists can come together and make this world a better place by saving lives and keeping families intact."