It was a day in early August 2015. I was returning home from work, it was late afternoon. I rang the doorbell, and waited for my husband to open the door.
We are a doctor couple, who had first met in the hospital wards and had then decided to spend our lives together. We had been married for 8 years and had 2 kids. We had just started our careers following a long period of studies which is the part and parcel of being a doctor.
The door opened and when I saw my husband, it struck me that his eyes looked yellow. Lately he also seemed to be getting tired easily. A series of blood tests done confirmed a diagnosis of hepatitis. He was asked to take rest from work and repeat blood tests weekly. The blood tests were taking time to normalise. Although we both were worried, we acted like things were ok. It was a Sunday morning nearly a month later. I was still in the hospital, after my night duty, when I got a call from my husband saying that he had developed some bleed like swellings in his mouth. Blood tests were done and the platelet count and total blood count were found to be very low. He got admitted to the ICU of the same hospital he was working in. We had no idea what was happening. He seemed to have been improving lately, and now suddenly things were going out of control. I was allowed to meet him once. I spent the night in the hospital unable to sleep a wink. What had gone wrong? Did he get so sick because I hadn’t taken good care of him? Had I been too busy with my kids and work that I had neglected him? Though ours was a love marriage, now work and kids had become the first priority, and we couldn’t give each other as much time as before. I thought of all the fights I had had with him, harsh words spoken to him in moments of anger. I regretted not having given him more time in the midst of balancing between work and kids. I asked God to give me one chance, so that I could show him how much I really cared for him.
The doctors suspected him to have developed Aplastic Anemia, a rare complication in some cases of hepatitis. This is a condition where the bone marrow stops working, so no more bloods cells are produced. The platelet and white cell counts fall initially, then hemoglobin also falls. And to clinch the diagnosis, a bone marrow study had to be done. We were advised to go to a higher centre, preferably Christian Medical College, Vellore for further evaluation and treatment.
CMC Vellore is a premier institute, with patients coming from all parts of India, and even abroad to seek relief from their ailments. Hematology, the department which deals with diseases related to blood, was a very busy department, and the wards there were always full, with a long list of patients waiting for their turn to get admission. To take my sick husband whose platelet count was so low, and who was at risk of developing a spontaneous bleed anytime appeared to me a daunting task. But our dear friends helped us in securing a room in CMC. And a flight was booked the next day early morning to Chennai.
I packed a suitcase with some clothes and other essentials, sent the kids to my parents’ home and was all set to go not knowing when we would come back. The night before we left, the hospital MD asked to meet me. He told me to be brave and handed me a big bundle of money. I was taken aback. Never in my life had I seen so much money, nor had I ever needed so much. I refused to take. But he insisted, saying I would require it.
The next day early morning we took the flight to Chennai, and from there a friend had arranged a vehicle to drive us to Vellore. By afternoon we reached Vellore. As we entered CMC, I was filled with hope. I felt like God was telling me that my husband was in safe hands now.
We were given a room on the eighth floor, and this was to be our home for the next one month. The bone marrow study confirmed the diagnosis. After a trial of growth factor injections to stimulate the bone marrow failed, the only treatment option left for us was a bone marrow transplantation. Bone marrow transplantation is not a surgical procedure unlike other organ transplantations. It involves transfusion of stem cells harvested from a matching donor. Prior to the procedure, all the white cells in the recipient have to be destroyed completely by chemotherapy so that the transfused cells can be taken up by the recipient marrow.
Now the next step involved was finding a matching donor. My husband is the second among three siblings. In a 25% chance of a siblings HLA matching perfectly, my younger brother in law’s report came as a perfect match. This renewed the hope in us.
But there were still hurdles to cross. My husband was getting fever spikes because of his low immunity which made him prone to infections. He was getting high end antibiotics to treat the infection. And occasionally he would get mucosal bleeds which would require platelet transfusion. While antibiotics can be bought, platelets can only be acquired when someone donates. Donation of platelets is a tedious process in comparison to blood donation. So not many volunteer to do the same. When I contacted a local NGO, they couldn’t help me out. But help came in the form of God sent Angels. A big group of friends drove all the way from our hometown to Vellore just to donate platelets and with that, they gifted us a part of themselves.
I would spend my day in the hospital room, looking after my husband’s needs. When he slept, I would go through the copy of The New Testament kept there. The Son of God had to undergo so much suffering, and still he had the compassion to say ,” Forgive them father, they know not what they do.”
Our suffering seemed miniscule compared to His. The stories of his compassion brought tears to my eyes. God was really compassionate, I realised. We suffer, but it hurts him more to see us suffer. The love that God has for us is much beyond our comprehension. I began to see the people around me with eyes of empathy. I could feel the agony of the parents who were watching their elder child who had leukemia suffer, the pain that could only be eased through death. I shared the anxieties of the daughter whose father had multiple myeloma and was a difficult person to be with. I encouraged a lady who became a dear friend, to continue her hobby of painting and thus relieve the stress of looking after her sick mother. It was like I had found a new family here, a family which shared the pain of a dear one suffering. We all lived just one day at a time not knowing what the next day would bring.
Every day one of my husband’s friend who worked in CMC, would visit us, after his working hours. He would bring cheer and hope when we were down. We always looked forward to his visits, and he never disappointed us. A few friends working in CMC would take their time out and give us occasional visits. A dear friend even gifted me the Holy Bible after marking out some verses in it just to to give me strength to hold on . It is a treasured possession even today.
As the time for bone marrow transplantation approached, we were asked to rent a house nearby. When my husband would be taken to the transplant ICU, I wouldn’t be allowed in there and also, we would have to stay in Vellore for a few months for the check ups. Our dear friends again helped us to find a nice one bedroom apartment which was furnished with some household essentials. The house owner was a kind lady who treated me like I was her own daughter. She even had a prayer meeting held for my husband.
We were anxious about the procedure. Sister Ann, who was a nurse from Britain and had spent nearly her whole life in India with bone marrow transplant patients, talked to us. She spent time with us explaining the process, what to expect and so on. Her dedication despite her age amazed us. Such people who are work selflessly despite their own age and health issues, to help us face our fears are God sent Angels on earth.
At last the day came when my husband had to be taken to the transplant ICU. Now he had to be alone and it broke my heart. I could no longer look after his needs, share his fears and pain. With tears in our eyes, but pretending to be brave we said good bye. It would be just for a little while we told each other. I said goodbye to the room which had been our home for the past one month, and went to the rented house. I couldn’t eat or sleep that night.
From the next day, his chemotherapy began. The chemo would destroy all the white cells in the body, and when the count reached zero, he would recieve his new lease of life, the stem cells from his brother. My brother in law had taken a break from his work schedule to donate the stem cells. After receiving the growth factor injections, stem cells were harvested from his blood and kept ready.
I had to take food to the hospital three times a day. Giving food to the patients in transplant ICU is an elaborate process. The food which is freshly cooked is packed in a tiffin carrier. This tiffin carrier along with a jug of drinking water, a plate, spoon and glass has to be kept in a large pressure cooker, and steamed for 15 minutes. The entire pressure cooker with the contents has to be handed in once the steam is let out. This is to ensure that no infection reaches these immunocompromised patients. Only one person is allowed to visit the patient for an hour in the evening.
The first few days of chemotherapy made him feel sick. I would visit him in the evenings but I would be afraid even to go near him because I didn’t want to infect him. The day of the transplant finally came. As I started my car to drive to the hospital, the stereo in the car played ” Tu na jaane Aas Paas hai Khuda…” It was like God reassuring me that he has always been with us. Never a moment has he left our side. That moment I knew that my husband would get well soon. Full of hope I went to my husband’s room. The pack of stem cells was started. It seemed like the pack filled with a new life had started flowing into him and would soon fill every cell of his body. On the 4th day after the transplant, he called me early in the morning. He said…”I have good news. My counts have started rising…” This was the first time since that fateful day, that the counts were improving. We both felt escatatic. God had carried us through this ordeal with all His Compassion. In the next few days his counts improved steadily, and after some days we were told that he was now ready for discharge. The hospital bills were settled. Though the amount was hefty, all my husband’s friends and batchmates had all pooled in money to help with our expenses. That too without us asking for any financial help. The whole world was showering love and kindness on us.
At last my dear husband was with me. We spent the next 2 months in the rented house, going for the weekly check-ups. The frequency of check-ups came down, and then we were told that we could go back to our hometown. When we reached home, our children took a minute to recognise their father. Instead of the fair, well built person they were so familiar with, here was a thin dark and bald person. But he still had the same beautiful smile and bright eyes. My younger daughter who was 2 years old, and hadn’t spoken to me for days, now clung to me without speaking a word, just a happy smile on her face expressing how she felt. My mother who had a difficult time looking after my children, had never once complained about what she was going through. She had silently understood her daughter’s pain and given her unconditional support.
My husband had to continue immunosuppressants for sometime to avoid a graft rejection. That also was gradually tapered and stopped. Now he is healthy, happy and living a normal life like anyone else.
Thus settled the storm which had blown into our lives and carried us away from everything that was known and familiar to us. But it had taught us a number of valuable lessons
1. Never take anything for granted. Health. Family. Spouse. Don’t let it be too late to realise their value in your life.
2. Live only one day at a time. Anything can happen tomorrow.
3. God loves you no matter what. And He is with you every moment of your life. It’s just that you are blind to His presence.
Though it had been a difficult time, the lessons learned were most valuable. I don’t have words enough to express my gratitude to the friends, family and even strangers who stood with us and helped us through.
It’s been a long post. Thank you for listening to our story ☺️.