Bone marrow transplant offers ‘new beginning’ after leukemia diagnosis

A portrait of Todd Coburn
Todd Coburn is a Facilities Engineering planner at Fred Hutch, where he underwent a bone marrow transplant 25 years ago. Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

March 27, 2017 | By Todd Coburn

My cancer adventure started shortly after my 17th birthday. A day after having a routine wisdom tooth extraction my mouth was still bleeding profusely. After a return visit to the oral surgeon, he sent me to a local hematologist who took some blood samples that revealed my white blood cell count to be 50 times higher than normal and that I had chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). In hindsight, there were a lot of physical signs leading up to this (bruising, tiredness) but I was 17 … what could be wrong?

As I walked out of that doctor’s office, on our way to the hospital so I could be admitted, I asked my dad if I had heard and understood the doctor correctly; did I have leukemia? He said, as tears welled up in his eyes, that I had. I had barely heard the word leukemia before, but in my mind it equaled death.

It was determined that a bone marrow transplant was my best option for survival and, very fortunately for me, the Hutch (which pioneered the BMT) was the closest transplant center to where I lived. Ten months later, on March 27, 1992, I had a transplant from an unrelated donor on the second floor of the original Fred Hutch building at 1124 Columbia St. on Seattle’s First Hill. I still remember the room number: room 59. After the transplant, I had some graft-vs.-host disease and a few setbacks but thanks to the dedicated and amazing staff of nurses, doctors, schedulers and everyone else who was there for me, my transplant was a complete success!

I’m especially thankful to the late Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, the Hutch researcher who received a Nobel Prize for pioneering BMT, and his team, as well as the brave patients who went before me to make my success possible and to allow me a new beginning. It has been 25 years filled with intentional and thankful living. From climbing mountains to traveling in 15 countries and circumnavigating the globe, to experiencing true friendship, relationships and spending time with those I love, each of the 9,125 days has been a gift.

In 2001, I had the opportunity to come to work at the Hutch in the Facilities Engineering Department. There have been very few days in the last 16 years that I haven’t walked onto campus and thought of how it all began and felt good to be able to be a part of something so important. It’s inspiring to see all of the dedication and hard work that goes on here every day and to know that we, no matter our role here, are all continuing to make a difference in the fight against cancer and making it possible for others like me to continue on and live a full life.

Thank you to all of my fellow Hutch and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance employees for all that you do!

Todd Coburn is a Facilities Engineering planner at Fred Hutch.

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