How to be the hero

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Foster
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs
Most of us happily go about our lives with some kind of routine and normalcy. Until one day when something out of the ordinary happens. A day that changes who we are and who we will be forever.

For me, that happened on a June day back in 2010. I had just put my three month old son to bed and I was anxiously awaiting a visit from my good friend that was coming in from a deployment to Iraq.

When the phone rang, I assumed it was my friend calling to tell me she was running late. She was always running late.

But it wasn't her; it was my dad calling to tell me my Mom had been hospitalized.

At first the conversation didn't make my mom's condition sound too serious, but after some time I sensed this wouldn't be a quick hospital visit. My dad explained it was cancer. Multiple Myeloma to be exact.

Multiple Myeloma is a cancer that starts in the plasma cells in bone marrow. The plasma cells grow out of control within the bone marrow and form tumors in the solid bone which then weakens the bone.

The disease is more likely to affect men, people over 50, African-Americans, and those who are obese. My mother was none of those things.

But it didn't make a difference that she didn't fall in line with the risk factors, she still had cancer...and the diagnosis was terminal.

I'm not really sure how I made it through each day after that and being stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Va. while my parents were in Vermont, I felt really disconnected and hated knowing there was nothing I could do to help. I went on leave and flew up as much as possible but the short flight might as well have been from half way across the world.

In September, my family and I, as well as my mom's two brothers, flew in from different parts of the world to surprise her for her fiftieth birthday. Although she would get tired from too much activity, she was doing quite well. But things quickly took a turn for the worst.

The cancer was spreading a lot faster than anyone had expected. In October, her organs were starting to shut down and soon she was having dialysis for her kidneys every other day. She was bleeding internally, had an infection and the doctors were working frantically to save her.

When she was first diagnosed, the discussion had come up about a stem cell transplant. Because my mother's disease affected her bone marrow, bringing in new, healthy stem cells could prolong her life. The only problem was finding a match.

The doctors determined the best course of action would be to take her own stem cells and conduct what is called an autologous stem cell transplant. But, first and foremost they needed her to get stronger.

She slowly started to heal and somehow her organs decided they were going to cooperate. She was finally able to go home from the hospital for a short time in November but then went back in over Thanksgiving so they could take bone marrow. Although the process should have taken three days, they were only able to continue for two as she was too sick to keep going. Because of this, they weren't able to get as many cells as they would like, but with the severity and fast progression of the disease, it would have to do.

Her stem cell transplant was mid-December, after a few days of being blasted with triple doses of chemotherapy. They needed to rid her body of all the bad cells so the new cells could do their job. The actual transplant took no longer than 30 minutes and was as simple as putting the cells into an IV through a syringe.

The next 100 days would be the most important days in any of our lives. If the transplant worked, this is the timeframe it would be determined. During this time, the likelihood of infection is heightened to dangerous levels. A simple sniffle for me could be deadly to my mom. She was watched closely by an amazing team of doctors and nurses.

Back in Virginia, I had applied and been approved for a humanitarian assignment to Hanscom. While we prepared to move north, my mother continued to fight for her life.

Fortunately, the transplant was a success.

My mother was given around four months to live at the point when all her organs were shutting down in October. The doctors said if the transplant was successful, it would double her life expectancy. This would mean that my mom still only had eight months to live. Knowing that we didn't have much time, I was so grateful for the PCS closer to my family.

I'm happy to say that although she shouldn't have made it past the summer of 2011, my mom is still doing well. Although she still goes in for in-patient chemotherapy sessions for five days every 12 weeks, it's a small price to pay to have her with us still.

I believe the reason she is alive today is because of her fighting spirit and of course, the stem cell transplant.

After seeing what she went through, and continues to go through, I knew that I had to help in some way. I can't give blood because I grew up as a military brat overseas, but that doesn't preclude me from becoming a bone marrow donor. Not every patient is a candidate for the autologous stem cell transplant like my mom and many need to use an outside donor. While matches can be found within families, it is usually a stranger that ends up being a better match. This, of course, limits them to someone from the bone marrow registry.

Becoming a bone marrow donor was always on my "to do" list, but because of that fateful day back in June 2010, I truly understand the difference it can make and I'm choosing to be added to the bone marrow registry next week during a drive on Hanscom. My mom didn't think she'd ever get to see her grandson walk or talk, but she's been there for every milestone so far. If I can give that opportunity to someone else, I'm definitely going to do everything I can to help.

As a military community, we always step up to take care of each other. There are no limits or boundaries to what we will do for each other and if one of our family members is hurt, we all hurt with them. My mom is the wife and mother of Air Force servicemembers and therefore is part of the Air Force family. I have no doubt in my mind that my military family would step up and help if needed. I'm sure many others have similar stories and odds are not all of them turned out so well.

If you're able to donate, please do. You never know whose mom, or nana, you may be saving.

A Red Cross blood donation drive will be paired with a bone marrow registry drive at the Hanscom Chapel Annex June 4 and 5 from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Any active duty member, their immediate family, civil service employees, Coast Guard, National Guard and Reservists ages 18 to 60 who are willing to donate to any patient in need are eligible. Minimum health requirements must be met and will be determined after the registration package is delivered to the donor center.

Potential donors will have their cheek swabbed at the drive and any further testing won't be necessary unless registration leads to a preliminary match.

Anyone interested in becoming a donor but unable to make it to the drive can contact 2nd Lt. Kaprice Montecalvo at

More information about the bone marrow registry can be found at