Don’t let the lack of Christmas decorations fool you.
A holiday spirit beats in the blood and marrow transplant unit—quiet as an IV drip and as powerful as the hope for new life.
On Christmas Eve morning at the Spectrum Health Lettinga Inpatient Cancer Center, patients walked the hall with IV poles, visited with family, worked on puzzles and watched TV. And they prayed that bone marrow grafts would take.
“I already got my Christmas wish: the gift of life,” Dana Hall said.
A 47-year-old mechanic from Martin, Michigan, Hall received his donor stem cells Dec. 10.
On Christmas Eve morning, he found out his platelet count had more than doubled in one day, and his white blood cell count rose dramatically. He was scheduled to leave the hospital Saturday.
“When (the blood counts) jumped that much, I was like, ‘Holy cow. That is a blessing,’” Hall said.
The transplant is his best chance at beating the leukemia and lymphoma he has fought since 2009 and becoming a three-time cancer survivor. Hall also battled thyroid cancer as a teenager and melanoma in 2005.
A few signs of the holiday appear in his room at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital: a reindeer ornament hangs on the IV pole, and Christmas pictures colored by a niece and nephew decorate the wall. Because of their suppressed immune systems, the transplant patients are discouraged from keeping anything that could collect dust in their rooms.
“It hurts because I’m a very festive guy,” Hall said.
He typically fills his parents’ yard with nine artificial trees, reindeer, wreaths, crosses and lights timed to flash from one display to the next. From his fifth-floor hospital room, he enjoys looking at the lights of the city at night, though he wishes the nearby homes had Christmas lights.
“I’ve got a good view, but no homes decorated for Christmas at all,” he said.
His greatest concern this Christmas is for his 80-year-old mother, Dolores Hall. He moved in to her double-wide mobile home two years ago after his father died of leukemia.
He stays positive by keeping focused on his goal: celebrating Christmas with her when he goes home.
“I want to do repairs to the trailer, get some carpeting and fix some things up that she could never have in her life,” he said. “Last year, I bought her a matching sofa and recliner because she had never had one.”
He feels deep gratitude for the sacrifices made by his parents, Dolores and Dale LeRoy Hall, when he and his four siblings were growing up.
“There were days my parents did not eat so us kids could eat,” he said. “They suffered for us.”
A doting uncle with 15 nieces and nephews, Hall looks forward to celebrating the holiday in January with his family.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s family being together.”
‘A new lease on life’
On Christmas Eve, Bob Chambers marked eight days from Day Zero—the day he received his stem cell transplant.
“That’s my renew birthday date,” said Chambers, a 51-year-old IT project manager. “You get a new lease on life.”
This year, he and his family focus on the spiritual meaning of Christmas. The presents and trappings of the holiday will wait until he goes home from the hospital.
“My belief is Jesus wasn’t even born on Dec. 25,” his wife, Melissa, said. “We can celebrate Christ every day and celebrate Jesus’ birthday when (Bob) comes home.”
On Thursday morning, Chambers walked five laps around the unit, accompanied by his 18-year-old daughter, Bethany.
Settled back in his room, Bethany played bits of songs on his playlist and quizzed him on the artists.
Listening to music is a big morale booster, Chambers said. His song selections range from Third Day to REO Speedwagon and include country, rock, Jazz and Christian music—whatever will reinforce a positive outlook.
He was diagnosed June 4 with acute myeloid leukemia and went through several rounds of chemotherapy in the summer and fall.
Admitted to the hospital Dec. 7, he received his new stem cells Dec. 15. The process is not easy, but he said he is glad for a chance to defeat his disease.
“You learn through this process to take each day at a time,” he said. “You can’t look back. You’ve got to keep looking forward.
“I’ve never said, ‘Why me?’” he added. “From the very first day it’s been, ‘What do we have to do?’ I don’t have time to put negative thoughts in my head and get defeated.”
He is grateful a donor was found for his transplant.
“I am blessed,” he said.
The Chambers’ Christmas tradition is to spend the holiday at their home in Rockford, Michigan, with their children, Bethany and 28-year-old Andrew. They play games, eat ham and potatoes and pie, laugh, and watch Christmas movies.
Although he will be in a hospital bed this year instead of his favorite chair at home, Chambers said the meaning of Christmas remains the same. “God loves us so much that he sent his only son, Jesus, just for us,” he said. “It brought salvation to all of us.”
Focus on what matters
Sandy Knight, a nurse manager on the oncology and bone marrow transplant unit, is part of the team caring for the patients on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. She said the transplant patients help put the holidays—and life in general—in perspective.
“You really focus on what matters most in life, and it’s not presents,” she said. “They just want more time. It reminds me to be grateful for everything I do have.”