Family battles with leukemia
by Connie Cissell
When Taryn Chapola felt a little sluggish six weeks after giving birth to her son Caden, no one thought much about it. Most new moms are tired and besides, Taryn had just started back to work at her job as a graphic artist in Syracuse University’s publications department. Dr. Jerry Caporaso, Taryn’s doctor, decided at her six week post-delivery check-up that he’d run some blood work because her platelet count had been a little low during the pregnancy. What happened next sent Taryn, her husband Joe and her newborn into a journey that would prove to be a challenge beyond anything the young family could have imagined.
In January of 2005, 29-year-old Taryn was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). AML is a cancer of the myeloid line of white blood cells which means rapid growth of abnormal cells that accumulate in the bone marrow and interfere with the production of normal blood cells.
“We were told right then that I couldn’t go anywhere except to the hospital,” Taryn said. “My blood cell count was so low I could have caught anything.” They told her to come to the hospital and to bring her family. The initial blood work results arrived Jan. 20 and by Jan. 22, Taryn was admitted to Community General Hospital on Syracuse’s south side.
Taryn’s parents, Ed and Carol Tracy, were stunned at the news. “When the doctor came in and said ‘leukemia,’ well we just fell apart that day,” Ed said.
Taryn’s husband Joe was more pragmatic. “He asked how long I would have lived if they hadn’t found it,” Taryn remembered. The doctor’s answer was a couple of weeks.
With an infant son — Caden was born in October 2004 — Taryn had much more on her mind than her illness. What she was worried about was how to plan everything. She was worried about her job and whether or not she would lose it. She was worried about taking care of her first child while she was going through therapies. She was worried about her husband and how he would manage everything at home while she was in the hospital. “Well,” Taryn said, “frankly, I was angry. I was thinking of how to plan and worry about everything.” She really didn’t consider succumbing to the cancer as an option.
Joe’s mother came up from Florida to run the household so that Carol Tracy could spend every available moment with her daughter. With that worry resolved, Taryn was still anxious about her position at Syracuse University.
“They were wonderful to her,” Carol said. “Not once did it feel like she was gone. They took up a collection to pay for parking at the hospital, they brought food, they gave her a bathrobe, lotions, slippers — everything you could think of.”
With Joe taking care of the home base with the help of his mother, Debbie Chapola, Taryn was able to relax and focus on the problem at hand: keeping herself strong and enduring round after round of chemotherapy. Her family was with her every step of the way. There were no other options.
The support that enveloped Taryn included prayers and holy items given to her, cards and letters of support that fill boxes in her home today. Taryn was a graphic artist at The Catholic SUN after graduating from Oswego State in 1997 and she developed lasting relationships with her co-workers, something that continued as she moved on to Syracuse University. Her optimism while undergoing aggressive chemotherapy was not a surprise. She could be found in her room at Community General up and about most days, her smile most prominent when Joe was able to bring Caden to see her. SUN columnist Friar Phil Kelly visited and wrote a special Christmas column dedicated to what he saw as “a holy family.” Father Fred Mannara, pastor of Most Holy Rosary Church where Taryn and Joe were married, was a frequent visitor as well. Ed Tracy returned to church at Rosary after a lengthy absence and he is still thanking God every day that his daughter is here to enjoy her family and her own life-giving gifts. “This turned my life around,” Ed said. “Her name is still in the bulletin for prayers.”
Carol Tracy was Taryn’s lifeline. She made sure no one brought fresh flowers or food into Taryn’s hospital room and later at home because such items could bring bacteria which would be dangerous to her daughter. Taryn’s younger sister Erin Snyder brought her three boys to see their aunt as often as she could.
Taryn’s treatment included getting the leukemia into remission so that she might be considered for a bone marrow transplant at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Her hematology/oncology physician, Dr. Heidi Puc, had a fellowship at the reputable hospital and communicated closely with physicians there to coordinate Taryn’s care. Her nephew Nathan was born while Taryn was battling the leukemia and her sister and her husband even saved his cord blood to see if it might be a match for Taryn. However, none of the family members proved to be a match and a national search for a bone marrow donor began in March of 2005.
After undergoing three rounds of intensive chemotherapy at Community General to keep herself in remission, Taryn finally heard she had a match in April of 2005. There was a waiting period so that the donor could arrange his schedule to be available to do the transplant. And, Taryn had to undergo a fourth round of chemotherapy and full body radiation leaving her with a clean slate to enter Sloan Kettering on July 3. There, she received yet a fifth round of chemo making her first day of her new cancer-free life the bone marrow transplant day of July 14, 2005 – a day Taryn refers to as her “new birthday.”
“It’s a new life so it’s a new birthday,” Taryn said. “I had no immune system. It had to develop and my body had to accept the transplant and start producing new cells in the marrow.” The transplant itself, Taryn said, was a little anti-climatic. It involved putting the new marrow into a new port. Her two best friends since childhood, Anne Satalin and Shannon Patrie were there to celebrate with her. Taryn could only get glimpses of Caden through the hospital window for the next 100 days, the time required to monitor transplant patients.
One of the hardest things to bear was watching Caden grow up his first year as his grandmothers and daddy took care of him, Taryn said. “It’s hard to see someone else take your place when you’re a new mom,” she said, “and knowing you probably won’t have more children makes it even harder.”
With a turn to her typical optimism, Taryn added, “We are so lucky it happened when Caden was so young because he has no memory of me being sick.”
Another aspect the young family had to grapple with was the cost of Taryn’s medical care.
“There were huge medical bills. We were in debt and newly married but we weren’t about to give everything up and bow down to cancer,” Taryn said.
Her friends and supporters came to her aid by holding a huge benefit in her honor. The proceeds helped the young family and gave them an emotional boost as well.
Even though living at hospitals is not a positive reality, Taryn and Joe managed to make their lives as pleasant as possible through the ups and downs that came with all the treatments and restrictions placed on their lives.
“Joe tried to come to dinner with me every night,” Taryn said. “We had date night once a week where he would bring dinner and we could watch a movie together and someone brought Caden to see me almost every day.”
Taryn’s hospital room at Community General was covered wall-to-wall with cards wishing her the best. She said her nurses came by to visit with her regularly and couldn’t wait till Caden came to visit. “They became like family,” Taryn said.
“There is so much good that came from this,” she said. “I never felt as if God was punishing me. God only gives people things they can handle. He wouldn’t have given this to me if I couldn’t handle it. My faith definitely became stronger. I was raised Catholic. I know God doesn’t punish us. He gave me this to make me a stronger person. Believe me, God and I had plenty of chats when I was in the hospital.”
Taryn chose to meet her bone marrow donor. She wanted to thank him for her new birthday. Ironically, her donor grew up around the corner from Carol Tracy’s godparents. “They knew him while he was growing up in Brewster, N.Y.,” Carol said. “They knew him before we ever knew him.” The donor wrote Taryn a card which she treasures. His note begins with “To my new friend….I am so sorry for your suffering…..God bless.”
After some setbacks and some days where she couldn’t keep any type of food down, nearly three years after her transplant, Taryn has gotten on with her life. But for Taryn, this means acknowledging daily all the love and support and prayers she feels carried her through one of the worst possible scenarios anyone could face.
Taryn has been back to work at Syracuse University for nearly a year. She is set to begin nursing school at St. Joseph’s College of Nursing’s weekend program in June. It’s one way she can give back all the tender, loving care she received. Undoubtedly, Taryn Tracy Chapola will make one unbelievably dedicated nurse.