On the Road to Recovery

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Her bones were as hollow and light as a bird's after two days of chemotherapy that killed all traces of bone marrow. She had been vomiting all day from the physical shock of radiation and she wondered, just for a minute, if she wouldn't die from the surgery that was designed to save her life.

Debbie Freseman was scheduled to undergo a peripheral blood stem cell transplant, a type of bone marrow transplant.

She returned to her bed and continued the wait for the transplant material -- peripheral stem cells from an anonymous donor -- to arrive by plane. If the procedure was successful, the infused cells would produce new, healthy bone marrow.

Freseman, an emergency-room nurse from Steamboat Springs, was staying in the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, where she had been for weeks, hoping that destroying and rebuilding her body would rid her of myelofibrosis.

Since 1995, there had been a countdown on the number of years she had left to live.

The stem cells arrived about 1 a.m. in two plastic bags.

"It looked like strawberry juice," Freseman said. Her mother and her husband, who had been by her side for months, examined the bags for a sign of the donor's identity.

"All we know about the donor is that it is a woman and she lives somewhere in the Eastern time zone," Freseman said.

The time on the bag was recorded in Eastern Standard Time. The bag also came with a good-luck note from the donor.

The Fresemans are not allowed to know the name of the donor for one year after the transplant, but they wonder who the person was who made such a sacrifice.

In order to donate stem cells -- a procedure far more invasive than donating blood -- a woman they had never met took growth hormone shots a week beforehand, then had her blood removed, the stem cells removed from it, and the blood returned to her body.

Most people who donate bone marrow or stem cells become aware of the need after watching a family member or a friend suffer from a disease, which may have been the case with Debbie's anonymous donor. Her husband, David Freseman, registered with the National Marrow Donor Program because of his wife's myelofibrosis.

As soon as the bags of stem cells arrived, the nurse hooked them to an I.V. implanted in Debbie Freseman's chest. The transplant was done much like a blood transfusion.

The danger at that point was very real.

"I was scared," she said. "I had a 60 to 70 percent chance of surviving."

If Debbie's body accepted the stem cells, she would have a long life ahead of her. If the graft did not take, she would have no bone marrow and no immune system.

"I watched it flow through the tube into my body and I thought, 'Wow. This is new life,'" Debbie Freseman said.

David Freseman can remember that moment so vividly it still makes him cry.

"She was laying there in bed with the (I.V.) tube in her hand, and she wouldn't let go," he said.

Halfway through the second bag, Debbie started to fall asleep, and her mother and husband decided to go back to the two-bedroom Seattle apartment where they lived for five months leading up to the transplant.

Debbie Freseman fell asleep with the tube still in her hand.

"When I woke up, it was just another day," she said. "It was in there now. I didn't have to worry about the plane crashing on the way to the Seattle."

"We felt at peace," David Freseman said.

That was 151 days ago.

When Debbie Freseman was diagnosed in 1995, she started cherishing every day and she completely reconstructed her life.

"I was in a bad marriage, which I ended shortly after and married the man of my dreams," she said. She took several trips with her mother. She learned to ski and she took a cross country trip from her home in North Carolina to the West and eventually made the move to Steamboat with her new husband, David Freseman.

The couple returned to Steamboat from Seattle on March 22.

Now, she has the immune system of a newborn, but it will improve with time. She takes Cylcosporin and the steroid Prednisone.

Prednisone makes her face swell. Her hair is gone from the chemotherapy.

"I walk down the street or around the hospital and by friends who don't even recognize me. The facial swelling will go away," she said. "Now, I have a long number of years of life. I have the future now."

Doctors predict she can return to work within a year.

The ordeal strengthened the Fresemans' relationship, they said.

"Even in the hard times, we found a way to have fun," David Freseman said. "We live by the motto that hangs next to the front door: 'Live well. Laugh often. Love much.'"

The Prednisone robs Freseman's muscles, so she walks one or two miles a day to keep her strength.

Most evenings, she walks the miles holding her husband's hand.

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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