26 years after a life-changing bone marrow transplant

Pilot Gregg Palmer in a cockpit of a plane
Now-retired commercial pilot Gregg Palmer receive­d a bone marrow transplant for leukemia in 1992 from Fred Hutch. Photo courtesy of Gregg Palmer

On May 1, 1992, I became the 403rd patient to receive a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor for chronic myeloid leukemia at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. I owe my success to a higher power, family support, a positive attitude and the excellent care I received from Fred Hutch.

My transplant was over 26 years ago, and today I feel great. My Indonesian wife Pascia and I live on Central Java Island on a beautiful rice paddy as far away from stress as I could possibly find.

I retired last January at age 55 as a commercial pilot flying Boeing 737s and private jets like the Gulfstream 550. Since my transplant I have been to all 50 states and many different countries.

One of my favorite flights was around three years ago. I flew a Gulfstream 200 into Boeing Field and then, just a few hours later, went back to the Hutch to visit and reflect. I hooked up with my old friend and original doctor from 26 years ago, Jerry Radich. (Jerry and physician assistant Bob Irons were always armed with a joke to lift my spirits!) Jerry and I had coffee and discussed how far we have come in medicine since my guinea pig days of May 1992.

About Obliteride

Obliteride is a communitywide movement to fund cancer research at Fred Hutch. Obliteride participants bicycle and walk together annually — focusing on possibilities, celebrating discovery, embracing our fears, relishing in laughter and sharing a belief that we will help cure cancer faster.

Learn how you can join Gregg Palmer and participate in Obliteride at obliteride.org.

In 2017, Obliteride raised $2.8 million for cancer research at Fred Hutch. Cures start here — because of you.

I will be riding a bike with Jerry in a few weeks — without my Hickman line — at the Obliteride fundraiser in Seattle on Aug. 11. Pascia and I are both looking forward to the ride and to come back to that beautiful city of Seattle that was so instrumental in saving my life.

About my transplant

It feels like a dream, and even today I can't believe I actually went through such a big ordeal. I was just there for the ride, and what a helluva ride it was! Never in a million years would I ever have thought my 30th birthday party would be in the cancer wing of a hospital.

I was confined to a laminar airflow room, commonly known as “the bubble.” [A laminar airflow room, or LAF, is an isolated, sterile room meant to protect immune-compromised patients from infection.]

People ask me all time: What was the hardest part of the transplant regimen?

  1. Prednisone. That was some nasty stuff. I remember eating like an escaped convict at the Safeway cookie aisle. [The side effects of the drug include weight gain.]
  2. Bone marrow aspirations — ouch!
  3. Being on grounded status after seeing my United Express airplane flying by from my hospital window in the LAF room.
  4. The separation from my nurses after I was discharged to go back home to Atlanta. I wanted to call them 75 times a day as I felt so insecure without them. To this day, I respect a registered nurse like nobody could ever imagine. When you’re down in the trenches, they are there!

Here's another thing I hear all the time: Hey Gregg, were you scared during the transplant? At this point, I should possibly use a macho pilot response and say, “Of course not!” or, “Piece of cake!” However, I was scared big time. But I masked my fears with humor, which really helped me get through it all. I laughed my way through the bone marrow transplant — a classic case of false bravado. I honestly feel that a “never give up” attitude is essential to beating cancer or any other types of major illness.

My recovery was not easy. I tried to do too much too soon and, as a result, had many setbacks. Riding my bike to outpatient visits shortly after discharge from the LAF was not my smartest move to date. Plus my brother took me for a Rainier Brewery tour two days after major surgery to remove my 8-pound leukemic spleen. I finally made it to the tasting room with the aid of a cane as I watched three additional brewery tours pass me along the way!

Palmer's father congratulates him after the transplant infusion finishes
Palmer's father congratulates him after the transplant infusion finishes. Palmer is isolated in a laminar airflow, or LAF, room to protect him from infection. Photo courtesy of Gregg Palmer

Please note that I did not go through this extreme medical procedure alone. I had a great support network in place. My faith in God; my family; hospital chaplain Bruce; my volunteer, Kim; my co-workers; my doctors and nurses — it was all a team effort. Fred Hutch provided support groups, and I took full advantage of them.

My donor, Bobbie, is a Southern girl from Mississippi, and we do not request an interpreter to communicate with each other as I am from Georgia. I see Bobbie and her family on a regular basis. We hardly ever talk about my transplant, but she knows I care for her in a way that words could never express for what she did for me over 26 years ago.

‘Never give in’

If I can help anyone out there who is struggling or has concerns feel free to contact me because I feel this is my reason for being here today.

In closing, leukemia was the best thing that ever happened to me, as now I stop and smell the roses instead of walking by them in a hurry. We can beat cancer, and believing you can is 50 percent of the battle.

“Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” — Winston Churchill, World War II

I am sincerely thankful.

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