Harry Pearce: From leukemia diagnosis to transplant at Fred Hutch

Harry Pearce
Harry Pearce Photo submitted by Harry Pearce

In 1998, I was Vice Chairman of General Motors, a position I couldn't have dreamed ever holding when I was a young man. A lot of hard work, fortuitous timing, and a good bit of luck got me there. But that seemingly bright future appeared to disintegrate before my eyes on May 28, 1998.

A routine annual executive physical showed moderately abnormal blood counts. Additional diagnostic workups resulted in a diagnosis of AML. My family and I were absolutely devastated. My youngest daughter was a physician at the time and understood far better than I the seriousness of my illness. I had been healthy all my life and had no symptoms indicating any health problem.

When I went online to learn about my disease I found a wealth of what I can only describe as absolutely terrifying information. As I looked at the statistics of the disease, I learned that at the time AML patients had only a 14 percent 5-year survival rate. My future looked very grim.

I was overwhelmed with sadness. I couldn't imagine not being with my lovely wife of 31 years, my three wonderful children, and two delightful grandchildren. I was desperate to find a cure and started consulting with comprehensive cancer centers around the country hoping to find a strong consensus regarding the best treatment for my disease.

It was a bit bewildering because I received a variety of recommendations, including: "Let's just monitor the progression of your disease for a period of time before undertaking any treatment." Even to a layman, (that) sounded like a very questionable approach.

Finally on my last consult with the chief hematologist/oncologist of a highly regarded cancer center, I heard about yet another experimental treatment protocol. I was now royally confused and rather than try to sort through all the different recommendations, which I was wholly unqualified to do, I asked him if he was diagnosed with AML where would he go to be treated.

He paused briefly, no doubt out of a sense of loyalty to his empl oyer, and then said he would go immediately to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

That's all I needed to hear. I was at the "Hutch" within days and had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Appelbaum. He took the time to candidly explain to me the nature of my very serious disease in some detail, but with a sense of optimism regardless of the bleak general population statistics. He told me that I was an individual, not the general population, and apart from my disease I had no other health issues. In a quiet, thoughtful way, he reassured me that he felt I could be successfully treated and cured of my disease. He was frank about the risks, but confident about a good outcome. He described the team approach used at the Hutch and the rotation of physicians among the hospital, clinic, and the research center.

This made great sense to me and as it paralleled similar approaches that have proven very successful in the business world. Dr. Appelbaum recommended a new clinical trial which involved one week of chemotherapy (busulfan and c ytoxan), one day of rest, followed by a peripheral blood stem cell transplant. I was very fortunate to have a brother who as a donor was a perfect match.

Following the transplant I had some GVHD in the GI tract which was quickly and successfully treated as well as chronic GVHD in the skin, which was also successfully treated. The care I received from both physicians and nurses during my 4-month stay in Seattle was absolutely extraordinary.

When I first met Dr. Appelbaum he commented that although I was a senior GM executive I should understand that all patients, no matter their position in life, receive the same quality of care at the Hutch. I've never forgotten those words and thought to myself at the time, “This is the kind of place I want to be treated!” The kindness, compassion and extraordinary professional skills of the entire staff at the Hutch, combined with a world-class medical research organization, make it a cancer treatment center second to none! The specialist who answered my questions honestly and objectively, steering me to the Hutch, put me in the hands of a remarkable group of people who saved my life. That makes my continuing financial support of the Hutch a no brainer!

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